Where have all the smelt gone?

Rainbow smelt, leefish, freshwater smelt, frost fish, ice fish, candy fish - there seems to be no shortage of references for these tasty, shimmering, torpedo-like creatures.

What there does seem to be these days, however, is a shortage of smelt altogether.

Interestingly, fishermen on both Lake Champlain and Lake George are reporting a significant reduction in the number of smelt caught through the ice this year.

It is a phenomenon that began a few years ago, actually, and one biologists have difficulty understanding.

On one thing biologists agree: both lakes are continually evolving, changing with the introduction of new fish and aquatic species as well as the impacts of human intervention.

Vermont Fisheries Biologist Bernie Pientka said a number of factors seem to be influencing the smelt population in Lake Champlain.

While the lake still holds a healthy population of rainbow smelt, a change in habitat along with the introduction of non-native fish like alewives has impacted where smelt congregate and where they've traditionally been caught, Pientka said.

The physical size of Lake Champlain smelt is also changing, he said, making it more difficult to achieve large catches of the fish like those seen in year's past.

In the late 1990s, studies of smelt conducted through trawling surveys showed a reduction in the overall age of smelt in the lake, Pientka said.

"We used to see a lot of four or five-year-olds, now for some reason, we are seeing more one, two and three-year-olds," he said. "The larger fish now average just five or six inches long."

While fishermen tend to blame the alewife infestation with reducing smelt populations in Lake Champlain, biologists still discount this theory, saying the fish has not been around long enough to impact smelt.

Lake Champlain Fisheries Biologist Lance Durfey said that while ice fishing catches appear to be down in recent winters, it does not appear to be caused by a "crash" in the smelt population.

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