At the first restaurant I worked, we paid an old Italian lady to clean smelts for us. Buckets full. She would just sit in front of her TV at night and rip the spine out of these little Lake Erie sardines. Over and over. Truly, cleaning smelts is a pain in the ass. No clue how we even found this woman to do it - it was just a reality I walked into. It was a work responsibility. "Drop the smelts off to the smelt lady." And then my car smelled like fish for a week. Years later, at another restaurant, the chef dropped a large bucket full of uncleaned smelts in front me, and I brought up that "actually" I knew somebody who would clean them for cheap. He said, "Oh, the smelt lady? She's dead." Then I repeatedly ripped out the spine of about 500 smelts.
It helps to have 3 buckets. One bucket is for uncleaned smelts, one is for cleaned smelts, and your final bucket is for spines. Don't get too attached to the spine bucket. Fried smelts are a Western Pennsylvania/Eastern Ohio classic, but they're available everywhere nowadays. They are cheap, fresh, and impossible to overcomplicate. It's bait. It's immigrant food. Every bar, restaurant, and bar-slash-restaurant in my hometown serves smelts with cocktail sauce and lemon. I'm from New Castle, by the way. It's a sullen rust belt town destroyed by drugs and without hope. Smelts are indicative of the area. They're one of those foods that you can't really elevate. I've seen people try, and it never makes sense. It's bar food, dude. Here's a recipe for some bar food.
1 pound of smelts
Enough beer to cover the smelts in a bowl
Large container of vegetable or canola oil
Clean the smelts in the horrific manner mentioned above, removing the spine from the center to reveal a more flat looking sardine. Soak in a beer of your choice overnight. When ready to fry, drain the smelts and dredge them in some seasoned flour that has been generously sprinkled with salt and pepper. Sift away any excess flour through a mesh strainer.
You can buy a lot of equipment to fry at home, and it does make the process a lot more honed and ultimately safer - but you can always fry on the cheap if you're smart. Even though frying is a technique I prefer to let restaurants handle, there are safe ways to do it when needed. Whatever pot you use, make sure it's deep enough to shield you from any splashes. I fill it up a little over half way with oil, then bring it up to temp on medium heat. Truthfully, I don't use a thermometer, but rather drag a "test smelt" through the oil after a few minutes to see what kind of temperature I'm working with. If it bubbles steadily and sizzles and floats, you're in business. You want a nice steady fry, so don't overcrowd your pot with smelts, but rather add them in batches. You want a golden brown color. Never, and I mean never add anything to a pot of oil that's smoking. Once you get the feel for oil and its temperature, frying will be second nature. Make sure you have a slotted spoon to take out the smelts.
Serve with lemon wedge and cocktail sauce.
NOTE: A New Castle bar preparation method calls to dredge smelts in pancake batter instead of flour. My Grandma also did this. Just the cheapest pancake batter you can find. It's not as sweet as you think, and with a little salt, pepper, and lemon, it actually accents the smelt nicely. Give it a try.