On a chilly overcast afternoon, Dean Bannister slid his bucket to the other side of the dock, took a seat and looked for his luck to change.
He dropped his line in the water, gently gave his rod a tug and repeated the action. Bannister’s two longtime fishing buddies joined in.
“I can feel it,” Bannister said, sensing his fortunes would change.
“What does it feel like?” wise-cracked Lee Smith, his friend.
“It feels like I put my time in,” countered Bannister.
It might be hard to imagine the prospect of a skinny little silver fish luring three anglers many miles to Cornet Bay on Whidbey Island in the dead of winter.
But surf smelt have had that effect on Bannister, Smith and Rick Rumpff for decades, resulting in countless road trips from their homes in Mount Vernon, Arlington and Concrete to North Whidbey in hopes of filling their buckets.
They dipped their lines first in La Conner last Wednesday before trying their luck off the fishing piers at Cornet Bay.
“We figure they’ll be in any second,” Rumpff said.
Neither place produced a single fish but the seasoned smelt fishers knew better than to let that deter them from trying again another day.
“The only thing you can do is keep plugging away,” Bannister said.
Jigging for smelt is a popular pastime around North Whidbey this time of year with February generally considered the peak month during a relatively short winter fishery.
“It starts in late January or early February and goes through February. It’s not long at all,” said Chris Sublet, harbormaster at the Oak Harbor Marina. “They seem to come and go pretty fast and some years are way better than others.”
Smelt jigging is unique in that it is one of the rare angling opportunities that doesn’t require a fishing license.
The daily limit is 10 pounds, which amounts to a couple hundred fish, filling about half of a five-gallon bucket.
The public fishing piers at the Oak Harbor Marina and at Cornet Bay are the two most popular spots on Whidbey Island to jig for smelt.
“In years past, on a nice Saturday, we’ll have a couple hundred people out there catching limits,” Sublet said. “And some years, there’s hardly anything.
“It seems like it switches back and forth between us and Cornet Bay — one or the other is hot, but not both.”
Neither has seemed to boil with smelt just yet.
Cheryl and Ryan Wieldraayer spent last Thursday afternoon fishing with Ryan’s sister, Carol Sorg, at the Oak Harbor Marina with no smelt to show for it.
The Wieldraayers, from Oak Harbor, have fished for smelt for years, typically arriving an hour or two before high tide to wait for the fish to come in.
“They’re not entirely stupid,” Ryan said. “They let the current push them.”
The trio came armed with light rods rigged with pre-tied herring jigs and a small weight at the bottom. The jigs have multiple barbless hooks, which can produce catches of more than one fish at a time.
The gentle jigging motion stirred up excitement for Cheryl Wieldraayer, who inadvertently hooked into a juvenile Chinook salmon and a herring on the same line. She caught another herring but ended up unhooking all three and tossing them back into the bay. Then it was back to jigging, hoping a school of smelt might arrive.
“That’s the beauty about this,” Cheryl said. “It’s a cheap activity for the family.”
And it can be rewarding in other ways. A whole mess of smelt means tasty pan-fried snacks.
Some fry them up whole — head and all — but not Cheryl. The Wieldraayers and Sorg first cool the smelt in ice water to firm them up, then boil them briefly, allowing for them to do a quick cleaning that produces two little fillets.
“They make nice little sandwiches,” Ryan Wieldraayer said.
Ryan Wieldraayer said the fish sometimes arrive in good numbers in December but are generally gone by March.
Dan Penttila, a retired state fish biologist from Anacortes who studied forage fish in North Puget Sound and the Salish Sea for much of his career, said the fish caught during the winter are spawned-out smelt and pre-spawning juveniles.
Surf smelt spawn on the beaches mostly from May to October, then focus on replenishing themselves.
La Conner historically has been a hot winter fishery as early as November but has slowed in recent years.
“They feed to recover their weakened condition immediately after spawning,” Penttila said. “They do not die after spawning.”
Longtime smelt fishers can recall the days when the little fish were so abundant they were literally raked on to the beaches during summer spawning but that practice has been modified so that anglers now must use mesh baskets no wider than 36 inches for scooping.
While dipnetting is allowed for smelt in marine areas, the most popular method during the winter is jigging a line with shiny multiple hooks, many outfitted with tiny wings.
Some such as Bannister mix up a smelly concoction and use it as chum to attract the fish.
Two weeks ago, his line was dancing at Cornet Bay.
“Lee caught 16, I ended up with 26 and the dog ate one,” Bannister said, pointing to Molly, a labrador.
“Twenty-six will fill a big guy like me’s belly up.”
Surf smelt are used to this fate during their short life at sea.
“Everything eats them,” Penttila said.