These smelt, native to the rivers, bays and some lakes of eastern North America, from Labrador, Canada south to New Jersey, are the smelt most eaten in North America. From a lake in Maine, they were introduced into the Great Lakes, and became a major commercial catch there. Their numbers have been rather small in recent times, though possibly starting to recover. This smelt, and the closely related European smelt, are noted for their cucumber-like smell. As with the related rainbow trout, the pretty colors fade rapidly upon death, and with rough handling after freezing (they are usually just loosely bagged) they also loose most of their tail fins. This fish can grow to 14 inches, but is usually around 6-1/2 inches. Photo by Fungus Guy, distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.
Buying: In North America, These fish can be found loosely bagged even in supermarkets in the frozen food cases. The Asian markets in Los Angeles often have them on ice, but you can be pretty sure they were previously frozen (if the tail fins are broken, they have been frozen). They can be found "head-on" and "head-off".
Cooking: The traditional way to prepare these fish is to batter them lightly and fry them lightly browned. They are then eaten whole, "heads guts and feathers", often with a vinegar dip. I confess I usually gut them because you never know what they've been eating these days - but I wouldn't think of removing the heads or tails. If you want to remove the heads and guts, see Surf Smelts for method.
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The European smelt is nearly identical to the Rainbow Smelt, including the cucumber-like smell, and is used in the same ways. It can grow to 17 inches, though it is commonly around 6-1/2 inches. It is native to the White Sea (far northwest corner of Russia), through the Baltic Sea, and down the Atlantic coast to as far south as Bordeaux, France. It is usually found in estuaries, but some populations are found in fresh water lakes and streams. Photo by Ma.arzola distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.
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