Smelt angling a serious endeavor

Seattle resident James Sagon is all smiles pulling four nice-sized smelt from the waters off the Cornet Bay boat dock. - Tim Adams/Whidbey News-Times
Seattle resident James Sagon is all smiles pulling four nice-sized smelt from the waters off the Cornet Bay boat dock.
— image credit: Tim Adams/Whidbey News-Times

Angling for smelt, unlike fishing for some of the larger species, is the type of activity everyone in the family can enjoy.

In the past week, reports have been coming in that Pacific jacksmelt, the “silversides,” are very plentiful in the waters of Cornet Bay and anglers are hauling them in by the bucketful.

When I moved to Whidbey Island a few years ago, the sport of smelt angling was completely new to me. Back home in Michigan folks fished for what they called the rainbow smelt, a species that is a bit smaller that those found on the west coast, and dip nets were the way to catch them.

Michigan smelt usually begin their spawning runs as early as mid-March and the runs tapered off by the end of April, so devoted smelters turned out in force for the brief season.

A popular place to net smelt was just below the Singing Bridge on the Au Gres River in Arenac County where smelt would make their spawning runs up the river from Lake Huron.

The way it worked was the fish would make their runs in vast numbers, sort of like the silver salmon do out here on the island during the odd numbered years in the fall, but the smelt would run for only for a few minutes every hour.

To help anglers pass the time between runs, Arenac County entrepreneurs kept the half-dozen taverns across the road from the river well stocked with adult beverages and put on extra help when the smelt were running.

Anglers would leave a couple of folks down by the river, sort of like designated drivers, to keep a lookout for the fish and when they appeared, they would yell to the rest of the anglers who would vacate the taverns and race back to the river for a few moments of fast fishing action.

Naturally, after a few hours of drinking, running across the road, and netting little fish, quite a few smelt anglers had to be dipped out of the chilly waters of the Au Gres River themselves. But it was all in good fun because smelt anglers are serious folks and falling in the only river made for fishing tales to be told and retold for the next year or so until smelting time rolled around once again.

Saturday morning at Cornet Bay, smelt anglers from as far away as Seattle were out in force in hopes to taking home a bucket full of the shiny, silver fish.

At around 10:30, I met up with Oak Harbor resident Dominic Chan who said I should have arrived earlier in the morning as a lot of fish were being caught.

“If you’d been here at 7:30, people were pulling them in almost as fast as they could put their lines back in the water,” he said.

Chan was fishing with his friend James Sagon from Seattle, who had his nephew, Paolo Election, in tow. All three anglers had about a half-bucket full each of smelt and herring they’d pulled out of the bay.

“We’re just using jigs to catch them and not using any bait at all,” Chan said.

Not long after, Sagon reeled in his line with four fish attached.

“They’re back,” Chan said with a smile, and immediately cast his jig-rigged line back into the water.

Smelt are an interesting breed of fish and their flesh is quite oily. They are sometimes nicknamed the “candle fish,” the nickname coming from the fact that the smelt are so full of oil that when dried, placed upright, and lit, the fish would burn from end to end like a candle. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in the living room as I expect burning dried fish might tend to smoke some, in addition to smelling the house up.

If you would rather eat the smelt you catch than use them for illumination during power outages, here are a few recipes.

Traditional smoked smelt

1 c. rock salt

1 c. white sugar

1 tbsp. liquid smoke

4 tbsp. soy sauce

4 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

2 qts. water

1 bay leaf

3 fresh dill heads

Add above ingredients to water and mix well. Boil two to three tablespoons of pickling spices, bay leaf and dill in a small amount of water and add to the brine.

Dress smelt by removing innards with scissors, heads may be removed or left on. Place in brine for eight hours. Remove from brine and air dry for 45 minutes and arrange in a preheated smoker. Smoking time for smelt is three to four hours.

French fried smelt


Salt to taste

Pancake mix


Season smelt to taste. Prepare pancake mix according to directions. Dip smelt in pancake batter and fry until golden brown. Battered smelt can also be fried in hot fat in a deep fryer.

Smelts baked in orange sauce

2 lbs. of smelt

Salt (to taste)

Pepper (to taste)

1/4 c. butter, melted

1/4 c. orange juice

1 tsp. orange rind, grated.

Arrange smelt in a baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine melted butter with orange juice and rind. Pour over fish. Bake in 450 degree oven for 10 minutes.

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