Rainbow Smelt

Scientific Name: Osmerus mordax


Wayne Nelson-Stastny - South Dakota Game, Fish, and ParksCopyright Info

Identification: The rainbow smelt is a slender fish, silvery in color with a dark back and light sides.


Size: This species can reach lengths of 13 inches (33 cm).


Native Range: Rainbow smelt generally lives in saltwater but swims up freshwater rivers to reproduce. It can be found along the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Delaware. It also lives along the Pacific coast from the Arctic to Vancouver Island, British Columbia.


Table 1. Great Lakes region nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state/province, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Osmerus mordax are found here.

Full list of USGS occurrences

State/ProvinceYear of earliest observationYear of last observationTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
Illinois192319911Lake Michigan
Indiana192319992Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien
Michigan1906201716Betsie-Platte; Betsy-Chocolay; Boardman-Charlevoix; Cheboygan; Dead-Kelsey; Detroit; Escanaba; Great Lakes Region; Kalamazoo; Lake Erie; Lake Huron; Lake Michigan; Lake St. Clair; Lake Superior; St. Clair; St. Marys
Minnesota194520063Baptism-Brule; Lake Superior; St. Louis
New York192919947Black; Lake Erie; Lake Ontario; Oak Orchard-Twelvemile; Oswegatchie; Raquette; Seneca
Ohio193520172Black-Rocky; Lake Erie
Ontario19312017*
Pennsylvania193519971Lake Erie
Vermont199319942St. Francois River; Winooski River
Wisconsin1923201214Bad-Montreal; Beartrap-Nemadji; Brule; Door-Kewaunee; Lake Michigan; Lake Superior; Lower Fox; Manitowoc-Sheboygan; Menominee; Milwaukee; Ontonagon; Pike-Root; St. Louis; Wolf

Table last updated 9/30/2019

† Populations may not be currently present.

* HUCs are not listed for areas where the observation(s) cannot be approximated to a HUC (e.g. state centroids or Canadian provinces).


Means of Introduction: The earliest known record of this species in the Great Lakes is from 1912, when its eggs were stocked in Crystal Lake, MI. Fish escaped into Lake Michigan and spread quickly throughout the Great Lakes and the rivers that flow into them. It is unclear whether rainbow smelt is native to Lake Ontario or if it became established in this lake by migrating downstream from Lake Erie through the Welland Canal. The Welland Canal, opened in 1829, bypassed Niagara Falls and provided a barrier-free route between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.


Status: Rainbow smelt is found in many freshwater lakes and rivers throughout the United States, including all five Great Lakes. Introduced populations of rainbow smelt have done so well in the Great Lakes that a commercial fishery targeting them has been operating in the basin for many years.


Remarks: This species is eaten by humans and used as bait for salmon and walleye.


Author: Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant


Contributing Agencies:
NOAA Sea Grant GLRI Logo


Revision Date: 9/25/2012


Citation for this information:
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, 2019, Rainbow Smelt: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, and NOAA Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, Ann Arbor, MI, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/greatLakes/FactSheet.aspx?SpeciesID=796&Potential=N&Type=1&HUCNumber=, Revision Date: 9/25/2012, Access Date: 10/13/2019

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.