Typically about the size of sardines, fresh smelts are inexpensive and quite mild. In the Baltimore area, I've never seen them listed on a menu. However, from time to time, various local fishmongers and quite a few supermarkets will have them on ice appearing fresh.
Most likely, they will be previously frozen, sometimes split, and usually with heads off. Mrs. Yi, who fished for them as a child on a lake in northern Maine, has always contended that the smelts I bring home aren't as fresh-tasting as she would prefer. Like me, she has reservations about purchasing any fish whose eyes and gills are no longer available to be checked out. I once found some smelt at the International Market in Baltimore's Security Square Mall with heads on and eyes clear, and they tasted no different.
Because most smelt recipes call for frying, I was intrigued by this one for "BROILED SMELTS MAITRE D'HOTEL." It was adapted from a recipe once popular at Baltimore's long defunct Southern Hotel. Contibuted by "managing director A. J. Fink," it is from Frederick Philip Steiff's 1932 cookbook, Eat, Drink, and be Merry in Maryland.
BROILED SMELTS MAITRE D'HOTEL
When purchasing your smelts, find out as much as possible as to when they were thawed, or if fresh, where they came from and when. If satisfied, purchase however many smelt you wish to prepare. The Southern Hotel recipe calls for six large smelts, presumably good for a single serving.
fresh bread crumbs
If smelt are not already split, split them and remove the backbone, then dry with a paper towel. Generously add paprika to enough olive oil in which to dip all the smelts. Dip the smelts into the olive oil and then into the breadcrumbs. Broil close to the flame until breadcrumbs are golden brown. Top with butter that has been melted with finally chopped parsley, and if wished, add a slice of lemon and a spring of parsley.
Adapted from Eat, Drink, and be Merry in Maryland compiled by Frederick Philip Stieff, copyrighted by the author 1932, G.P. Putnam and Sons, New York.