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Rainbow smelt

Rainbow Smelt

Smelt Family: Primarily a marine family that contains 10 species of small fish. Some live in estuaries and others enter rivers and streams to spawn. Rainbow smelt is the only species in North Dakota.

Rainbow Smelt Identification

  • Slender, silvery fish
  • Large mouth and well-developed teeth
  • Adipose fin
  • Most adults are generally 5-8 inches long


Smelt eat a variety of foods, including insects, plankton, invertebrates and fish.

They can prey heavily on small fish, including other smelt.

First stocked in Lake Sakakawea in 1971, smelt have multiplied and spread throughout the Missouri River System.

They are an important source of food for salmon, walleye and other predator fish.

Smelt prefer cold water and spawn shortly after ice-out.

They have a short lifespan, with few living beyond 5 years.