Early April in the Finger Lakes Region of Central New York is crazy! You can leave your house in the morning in a t-shirt and flip-flops, but you better have your Uggs and a parka stashed in your truck! So to go out at 2 am to dip for smelt, I recommend leaving the flip-flops at home!
Here is how my husband and I packed up for our yearly trek down the narrow road along the glacial cliffs of Cayuga Lake. It was pretty quiet at that time of the morning, and since we didn’t ice fish for them, we were left to dip in some quiet solitude, except for the peepers! We had a friend who had a camp at the bottom of the cliffs and along the lake shore. We brought some firewood, our dipping poles, a large, deep cast iron skillet, shortening, and a half dozen 5-gallon buckets (3 to fill with smelt and 2 to sit on, or if they were running well…5 to fill)!
We’d get the fire going and start checking for the smelt to come in; we’d be at the mouth of a creek that fed into the lake, watching them work their way up the creek to spawn. Once they hit, we’d be busy dipping for a bit. After getting a pail or two filled, we’d take a break and throw some into the skillet! The smelt can be eaten whole or with the head left on. I would also bring a large ziplock baggie with my dredge mix (recipe below) and drop them into the hot skillet. They fry very quickly, so watch carefully! After our break, we’d recheck the creek, and if they were still running, we’d get another bucket full, or better yet, come back another night and do it again!
To snip or not to snip: It’s all a matter of taste; some snip off the head and run a knife down the belly to clean out the roe in the females; there’s no boning, as they are so small, they basically dissolve when fried.
My dredge: I’d throw in about a cup of all-purpose flour, a ¼ cup of cornstarch, salt & pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. You can add in any seasoning you’d prefer; my choice usually depended on how quickly my hubs got the truck loaded! As far as oil, I preferred shortening; it traveled well and had a high smoke point.
When we got home, we’d bag them up in some of the water from the lake to freeze; we’d snip the heads (we liked the roe), and throw them in the freezer. The only rule is: there are no rules!
Whether you ice fish with bait or dip in the spring, to snip or not, it’s all about the lake, the company, and, if you’re lucky, a bucket or two of smelt!