Most closely resembling small trout or salmon, éperlan de lac (lake smelt) are native to the US Atlantic coast from New Jersey north to Labrador. In 1912, smelt were planted in Crystal Lake, Michigan; it is from there that they found their way to Lake Michigan.
Spawning runs begin in the early spring, and extend for about three weeks. I first met lake smelt in the 1970’s while camping in Wisconsin’s Door County, where early risers dip-net them from tributaries by the thousands.
Smelt are best prepared shore-side, minutes after being caught..
Clean fresh smelt by removing the head and entrails then rinsing in plenty of cool, clean water. There is no need to remove the tiny fins or bones.
Pat the cleaned fish dry (you’ll want as many as a dozen per person, depending on size), then dip first in an egg beaten with a little water, then in cornmeal seasoned with ground bay, celery, dry mustard and red and black pepper. Allow to stand while you melt some farmhouse butter (and a little olive oil) in a heavy skillet over medium heat. A quarter inch on the bottom of the pan is about right.
Once the foam subsides, slide the fish into the pan without crowding and shallow-fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.
Transfer fish to a plain brown paper bag to drain for a moment, then season with a little crunchy sea salt. Serve piping hot with lemon wedges, homemade tartar sauce and perhaps a little Tabasco on the side.