HIGGINS LAKE, Mich. -- Rainbow smelt are among Michigan's tastiest fish, and while most people associate smelt with dip nets and spring spawning runs in creeks, these little predators are a lot of fun on rods and reels for ice fishermen.
However, as Bob Stockton pointed out on a recent night of smelting on Higgins Lake, proper tackle and baiting techniques will significantly reduce the time it takes to fill a bucket with 50-60 fish that make a meal for three or four people.
Carefully threading a wax worm onto a No. 16 hook attached to a jigging spoon, Stockton said, "You put them on so that they cover the whole hook, as much as you can. And you want to keep the point of the hook buried. If it's sticking out you won't catch half as many smelt."
Stockton said it was far more important to keep the hook point buried than to worry about the ragged condition of the bait after it has caught a couple of fish, adding, "It seems that the more beat up the bait gets, the better it works, as long as you have enough left to cover the point of the hook."
The jigging spoon was attached to the bottom of the line, and a No. 16 dry fly with a wax worm on it was attached about 18 inches higher. Stockton, who lives on the west side of Higgins Lake and sometimes guides smelt anglers, said that 80-90 percent of the bites are going to come on the bottom hook. "The spoon acts as an attractor, and then the smelt sees the wax worm underneath," he said.
Relatively few inland lakes hold smelt -- a fish that likes like cold, deep water with an optimum temperature of 45 degrees. They feed on zooplankton in mid-water, things such as freshwater shrimp and tiny larval fish. Smelt are among the smallest members of the salmonid family and look much like juvenile Atlantic or chinook salmon.
Most smelt caught on hook and line are taken at night. That's because these fish dislike bright light, and in the daytime few anglers are fishing at the 80-120 foot depths where the smelt hang out.
Stockton likes to fish for smelt with a spring bobber on an ice rod, lightly working the rod or pulling on the line with his fingers every few seconds to make the bait dance. He also used surprisingly heavy line, about 10-pound test, and swivel snaps to attach the hook to the spoon, saying that smelt are rarely line shy.
And while he uses a flasher fish finder to locate schools of smelt, it requires some experimentation to determine at which depth they're feeding.
"We've got smelt from 12 feet down all the way to the bottom," Stockton said as he looked at the flasher screen in a shanty over about 45 feet of water. "But we're getting nearly all of them 12-20 feet down."
He determines the proper depth by putting the jigging spoon in the water, opening the bail on his reel and lifting the rod tip about 5 feet to the shanty roof and then lowering it to the hole. Each lift is one "pole," and we started with the baits three poles down and soon got hits.
"But don't everybody stay at the same place," Stockton said. "If you've got three guys, one should fish three poles down, one maybe two poles and one nearer the bottom. When one guy starts getting fish, the others can adjust."
The trick was to vary the depth of the bait every now and then -- moving to a different depth would usually produce a quickly flurry of hits. And he was right about most fish, roughly 90 percent, coming on the hook attached to the spoon.
It was also a very subtle bite. Most hits were signaled by a tiny twitch of the spring bobber rather than a pull on the line and Stockton said, "When they hit, rear up and set the hook hard. If you don't react fast you're going to miss a lot."
We got enough bites over the course of three hours to put 50 in the bucket, mostly 5-7 inchers that would make a meal for three people.
Stockton and some other anglers were also keeping smelt live in a bucket sunk into the ice outside the shanty for use as bait for lake trout and whitefish the next day.
"We're getting a lot of whitefish lately, really nice fish," he said. "A lot of them are master angler fish over 24 inches. And yesterday we had two lakers over 10 pounds."