Smelt – A Silvery Treasure in Canterbury’s Waters

Retropinna retropinna. (Smelt), 1890, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/20). Below, smelt fresh from the sea by Allan Burgess. Smelt - A Silvery Treasure.
Retropinna retropinna. (Smelt), 1890, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/20). Below, smelt fresh from the sea by Allan Burgess.

Smelt – A Silvery Treasure in Canterbury’s Waters

By Martin Langlands

The name smelt is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word “smoelt” meaning smooth and shiny. Smelt are small fresh and saltwater bait fish with a silvery appearance. Smelt often swim in shoals. They are found in both landlocked and sea-running water, the latter is the focus of my article, Smelt – A Silvery Treasure.

Smelt are referred to as “silveries” and are found throughout New Zealand’s coastline. Smelt are also called “cucumberfish”, as they have a similar smell to cucumber!

Smelt are often caught as a by-catch by white-baiters in estuarine waters. Smelt are the powerhouse of many of the east coasts’ estuaries for a range of fish such as kahawai, flounders and sea-run brown trout.

Common smelt are known in Canterbury by most anglers as silveries.
Common smelt are known in Canterbury by most anglers as silveries.

Smelt are also a vast food resource for predatory birds such as herons and terns. The presence of large flocks of white-fronted terns working the water is a good sign that the smelt shoals are in.

Trout often feed on silveries in estuarine waters and in river mouths, as well as coastal lakes and lowland lagoons.

The Rakaia River and nearby Lake Ellesmere are well known for the large number of sea-run trout that are attracted to these locations by the presence of massive schools of smelt. Smelt – A Silvery Treasure.

Sea run trout are very well conditioned and can be extremely large due to the richness of this high-protein food source.

There are many fly patterns tied to represent silveries. Most silvery imitations have been invented in Canterbury due to the popularity of sea-run fishing, particularly for Brown Trout, which has a strong tradition at places like the Rakaia and dates back to the turn of the century!

Patterns such as Hopes Silvery, Jack’s Sprat, Grey Ghost, Dorothy and Rabbit lures have a traditional stronghold and produce excellent results. However, some modern patterns have proved effective such as Zonkers, marabou lures and a style using moulded silicon and there is a wide range of new materials suitable for silvery patterns such as pearl tubing, Flashabou and crystal flash.

Jack's Sprat, Hope's Silvery and a Rabbit Zonker lures. Smelt - A Silvery Treasure.
From the top: Jack’s Sprat, Hope’s Silvery and a Rabbit Zonker are all designed to imitate smelt.

Although many anglers stick to the conservative patterns which are dominated by red and black materials (Canterbury’s colours), for those interested in designing new patterns, now is a good time, with such a wide range of materials hitting the market.

Anglers are well advised to study silveries on location. They are the most beautiful fish and can darken the water as the schools dart in the river current.

As the name suggests, smelt are mostly silver with a band of pale amber ranging to light olive, and often have a pearl-purplish sheen along the middle of the side. Smelt range in size between 8 to 12 centimetres.

My three most favoured patterns are Jacks Sprat, Hopes Silvery and a natural-coloured zonker, in sizes 8 to 2. Silvery patterns are often tied onto strong salmon hooks, as they tend to get a hard time in the faster shingle rivers, such as the Rangitata and Rakaia.

Often during warmer evenings of spring and summer, trout can be seen chasing silveries into the shallows. In deeper waters, violent rise forms will indicate that trout are chasing silveries to the water’s surface. Regardless of the situation, the trout need to confine and corner the school before the slaughter begins.

Methods of angling silvery patterns vary according to the water type. In lakes (such as Lake Forsyth) I use a floating or slow sinking line. Blind fishing is a useful method for covering large areas of water and locating trout.

The most likely place on lakes for” successful silvery fishing are river mouths.

Areas of the lake’s shoreline with a gently sloping beach, are also worth checking out.

When signs of trout chasing silveries can be seen, such as bow waves and splashes, the fun really begins! Cast the fly to the area of activity and retrieve the lure with a fast action. The thrill of a trout chasing behind the lure is most exciting, as all is revealed in the shallow water.

In deeper fast-flowing rivers (such as the lower Rakaia River) it is best to use a fast sinking line. The best method is to cast up and across the current (on a 45-60 dégree angle), letting the fly swing in the fast water. Then retrieve the fly back up the slack water along the river’s edge. Brown Trout often take on the swing but will also take when the fly is being retrieved close in towards the angler. A sudden change in the line tension (either a pull or slackening of the line) indicates that a trout has hit the lure.

Like most bait fishing, the time of the day is a very important factor to consider for successful angling. The best times are early morning and the evening.

Every spring season offers excellent fishing for sea-run trout, especially at locations like the Rakaia River mouth, where silveries are schooling in vast numbers. Smelt – A Silvery Treasure. Where there are silveries there will usually be birds working, squawking and diving. More about these little silvery fish.

Guided NZ fly fishing and fly fishing lessons in the South Island of New Zealand with professional fly fishing guide, Martin Langlands – Troutlands

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