The True Smelt is scarce on our southern shores, but very numerous from the mouth of the Thames northward. Many ancient and important smelt fisheries existed on that part of the coast. In the estuaries of the Thames and Med way these little fish are plentiful ; they are also caught in the Wash and Humber, and, in fact, in nearly all the tidal waters of that coast. Breydon Water, at the back of Yarmouth, is full of them in their season. They are fairly abundant in places on the West coast, and are caught in the estuaries of the Tee and Mersey, and all the rivers flowing into the Solway. Whether they are found on the Irish coast is uncertain.
Like salmon and sea trout, the true smelts push into fresh water for spawning purposes. They have been caught as high up the Thames as Teddington and Hammersmith. They spawn during the spring, and immediately after spawning are not particularly good to eat. Observers tell some curious stories of the way in which smelts on the East coast drive shoals of freshwater fish before them, as they ascend rivers. Roach and dace in large numbers are said to flee before the smelts in Norfolk waters. Something similar in relation to the dace has been noticed, or at any rate recorded, in respect of the Thames.
Smelts appear to grow very rapidly ; a contributor to ' Land and Water' said that he had noticed in October ten or twelve which weighed together no more than a pound, while in March each fish would weigh four to six ounces, and a few as much as half a pound. Some of the fish caught were opened, and it was found that they had been feeding on herring fry. Their digestion must be rapid, for while those opened immediately on being caught contained the young herring, in those carried home was found nothing but digested food. Inside the herring fry taken from the smelts were small shrimps ! The gastric juice of the smelt would seem to be extremely acrid, for after making these investigations the observer wiped his hands on his handkerchief and then thoughtlessly used it to blow his nose, which caused his nostrils and lips to become inflamed, and his tongue to swell in an extraordinary manner.
Smelts are easily reared in fresh water. Colonel Meynell, of Yarm in Yorkshire, kept some for four years in a pond into which no sea water flowed. A similar experiment was tried with equal success in the lake at Roselherne Manor, Knutsford, Cheshire.