One day for a bit of fun Gillian and I took a two-day trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We lived in Sonoma County, about two-hundred miles away, a long spectacular ride and an overnight. Gillian and I worked hard together at Creative Living Center and did not treat ourselves to more than a Friday night movie or an occasional swim in the Russian River across the road from the hill she lived on in Forestville. For these girls it was a well-earned and adventurous outing.
The Kelp Forest in the Monterey Bay aquarium is a three-story tank that is open to the sky. The smelt are simple fish, no circus colors, no shape that reminds you of something else entirely, no size to amaze you or leaping from the sea of which to be proud. But oh those smelt, they are quite the silver sun catching little gems. A school of smelt must contain a thousand fish. They are just a few inches long and rather narrow. They don't look like much individually. But when they swim together, which is what they do, they are splendid. In this aquarium pool they made a whirling cloud two-stories high, traveling the waters of the tank like a glorious silver ghost. Of all the miraculous fish there, the smelt a' swimming were the most gorgeous, breathtaking form.
The sight, the magnificence of their swirling, the whirling cloud of silver stayed in the forward part of my memory. More and more often as the days passed, Gillian and I back home and the rigors of work, I'd find myself standing back from life a moment and there they'd be swimming by, unexpectedly, uncalled for. I was struck. I described what I saw to anyone and all. It wasn't enough. On a Saturday afternoon, in the upper section of the Bodega studio we called San Francisco, I pulled out some large paper pieces, thick and handsome to the touch, pinned them onto the sheet-rock wall and traced the swirling school of smelt out of my head. It didn't stop them from swimming by; I can still call them up more than a decade later. But it gave them a place to be where I could see their corporeal selves.
I filled the paper with all of the school it could hold. Stepping back I could see that the soft pencil was too delicate to find them in the dark. By then I knew how important that is in a painting, so I went at them again with paint, blue and yellow and red. I hoped to catch the light reflecting off their silver sides, the shadows, and the young herded and protected by the old. It seemed to happen.
Now that is all I have to say on the painting Smelt. But not all that I want to know or say about smelt. They stick in my brain and make me curious. How do all the little pieces know how to keep their pattern? Aside from knowing how, why do they? So I went on a study of smelt and find the results fascinating.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium website has some photos that just barely give you an impression of smelt magnificence. There is also a web camera on their site that may also give you a view of the smelt in action.
I've spent a bit of time looking into the details of smelt and their habits. In the Rhode Island Sea Grant Schooling Fact-sheet Prentice K. Stout writes about the how and why of fish schooling. He defines schooling as a "grouping of fish based on mutual attraction and exhibiting a geometrical relationship". I am not so sure about the geometrical description, as the shapes I observed in the smelt school were certainly more amorphous than I would think could be applied geometrically. But I am only an interested by stander reporting the thoughts of an expert. So I will just have my say and let it go. The reason Stout offers for why fish school, that I am most interested in, is that fish would prefer to look like something much larger and hopefully more dangerous than their own sometimes tiny selves in order not to be eaten. For a single little smelt this would be of great concern. I also like the explanation that as fish swim in schools, their tail movement creates a vortice, or tiny whirlpool, which cuts down water friction for the fish swimming behind it to make swimming easier and faster, ahh, like bicyclists drafting one another, I knew there must be some sort of human schooling. And Steve, who I have just excitedly shared this information with says, what about NASCAR drivers and swimmers. And I think runners too, and am so touched that people school like fish. Now I think of it, how about gangs? A gang no longer appears to be just a bunch of teenagers standing around on the street, but a dangerous entity, a Gang, that puts off such a fearsome facade that they are considered a large and scary thing you keep your eyes from and step across the street to avoid. Perhaps I have gone too far, but I think this is worth consideration.
I am looking into smelt as an amazed onlooker hungering to know more. I have spent many hours researching and find that the deeper I look the more complicated the topic becomes. Each new session of study I seem to understand both more and less. There are a remarkable number of resources for smelt and I find that the same information is not always applied to the same fish from different sources. And so, I feel pretty mixed up about the finer details. In the hopes of sharing some information without having to change either my fields of work or interest, I will quite likely be presenting some information that may be down right wrong. I am asking that should more expert readers than myself come upon information that needs clarification, oh please do let me know and I will make every effort to correct my misunderstandings. This gathering of articles and pictures is what people have discovered about smelt. It answers some of the questions I have had about where they live, what they are like, our relationship to them, and how they are doing in our world. I have found smelt material from the century before last up to midsummer two-thousand and five. People's interest in smelt has endured, and fortunately, so have they. Steve remembers seeing grunion rushing up the shore at Huntington Beach in Southern California when he was a child in the early fifties. He hasn't seen them since then. I heard about grunion running when I was a child in Northern California, though I'd never seen them. I have learned that they still run on the beaches near my childhood home. I now have knowledge to add to my admiration. Should the opportunity to make choices that help keep smelt schools swimming, I will be there.
The first question I wanted an answer to, once I recovered from the awesome sight, was how they school. I found that they have two tools for knowing where to find each other to create their patterns, their eyesight and their acoustico-lateralis. Acoustico means sound, lateralis refers to the sides of the fish's body, where these lines are found. The acoustico-lateralis is sensitive to movement and water displacement, allowing one fish to determine where it's fellow is swimming, helping to keep a measured formation and allowing that formation to change when needed. Young fish use just their sight, beginning to swim in pairs at first and then growing clusters until they are able to swim in patterns. For more details on this subject I encourage you to read Stout's article on fish schooling on the above mentioned Rhode Island Sea Grant website.
Fish inhabiting the darkness of the deep sea use bioluminescent light, created on their bodies to help them form schools. The fish at the front of a school determines the speed and direction. When the school turns, the new front fish will lead. Should the school be divided, it reunites as soon as possible. Interest in how schooling works, particularly how young fish learn to school, has inspired researchers at Humboldt College in California to build a clupeoid, a fish schooling simulator.
Smelt is the common name for a small, slender fish of the Osmeridae family. They are closely related to the salmon. Smelt are named for the silvery stripe on either side of their body, again, part of their schooling navigation ability. They can be found in oceans, rivers, estuaries, and lakes.
Along the Pacific coastline generally from Long Beach, California in the south to Shelikof Bay, Alaska and across the Pacific to Northeast Asia, a variety of smelt can be found including the Pacific Silversides, Jack Smelt, known to be terrific fighters to fishers, Surf Smelt, Night Smelt, Whitebait, Day Smelt, Eulachon, Rainbow Smelt, and Grunion.
As a child growing up in California within an hour's drive of the ocean, I often heard of the Grunion Run. Alas, only the title. I thought that meant a form of mythical fish that sprouted legs under a full moon that ran naked from the ocean across the sands to do goodness knew what. My imagination stuck at the part where fish could be seen running around the beach never giving thought to what might follow their wild run. As I grew older, I forgot about the Grunion Run. Now, sitting on Manhattan Island I read that grunion do indeed come up to the beach, but without a single leg sprouting. As nostalgia can wield a heavy hand, we will begin with the grunion. Here is the true story.
Grunion Leuresthes tenuis, are members of the Silversides family, Atherinidae, along with the Jacksmelt and Topsmelt. They normally occur from Point Conception California, to Point Abreojos Baja California. Occasionally, they are found farther north to Monterey Bay California and south to San Juanico Bay, Baja California. They inhabit the near shore waters from the surf to a depth of 60 feet. Tagging studies indicate that they are nonmigratory.
The California Grunion is five to eight inches long and ride on high tides to lay eggs in the sand. Grunion leave the water at night to spawn on the beach in the spring and summer months, two to six nights after the full and new moons. Spawning begins after high tide and continues for several hours. As a wave breaks on the beach grunion swim as far up the slope as possible. The female arches her body and excavates the semi-fluid sand with her tail to create a nest. She twists her body and digs until she is half buried in the sand with her head sticking up. She then deposits her eggs in the nest. Males curve around the female and release milt. The milt flows down the female's body until it reaches and fertilizes the eggs. As many as eight males may fertilize the eggs in a nest. After spawning, the males immediately retreat toward the water while the female twists free and returns with the next wave. While spawning may take only thirty seconds, some fish remain stranded on the beach for several minutes.
Spawning occurs from March through August, and occasionally in February and September. Peak spawning period is between late March and early June. Once mature, an individual may spawn during successive runs at about fifteen-day intervals. Females can spawn as many as six times during a season. Mature females lay between sixteen hundred and thirty-six hundred eggs during one spawn, with the larger females producing more eggs.
The eggs are deposited during the highest tides of the month and incubate in the sand during the lower tide levels, safe from the disturbance of wave action. The eggs are kept moist by residual water in the sand. The eggs hatch during the next high tide series when they are inundated with sea water and agitated by rising surf. This occurs after about ten days.
You can watch grunion eggs hatch by collecting a cluster of eggs after a grunion run and keeping them in a loosely covered container of damp sand in a cool spot for ten to fifteen days. Then, add one teaspoon of sand and eggs to one cup of sea water and shake gently; the eggs will hatch before your eyes in a few minutes.
Most grunion seen on southland beaches are between five and six inches long. Some are as long as seven inches. An average one-year old male is four and a half inches long while a female is slightly larger at five inches. At the end of two years, males average five and a half inches and females are about five and eight-tenths inches long. By the end of three years, an average male is five and nine-tenths inches and a female is six and three tenths inches in length. Few live to be older than three years. Grunion mature and spawn at the end of the first year.
Grunion food habits are not well known. They have no teeth, so they are presumed to feed on very small organisms. Shore birds, isopods, flies, sand worms, and beetles eat grunion eggs. Humans, larger fish, and other animals prey upon grunion itself.
Despite local concentrations, grunion are not abundant. The most critical problem facing the grunion resource is the loss of spawning habitat caused by beach erosion, harbor construction, and pollution. By the 1920's the fishery was showing definite signs of depletion and a regulation was passed in 1927 establishing a closed season of three months, April through June. The fishery improved and in 1947 the closure was shortened to April through May. This closure is still in effect to protect grunion during the peak spawning period.
A fishing license is required for persons sixteen years and older to capture grunion. Grunion may be taken by sport fishers using their hands only. No holes may be dug in the beach to entrap them. There is no limit, but take only what you can use. It is unlawful to waste fish. With these regulations, the resource seems to be maintaining itself at a fairly constant level. While the population size is not known, all research points to a rather restricted resource that is appropriately harvested under existing law. 
Whitebait, Allosmerus elongates, can commonly be found between the San Francisco Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, British Columbia. They have also been reported further south to Monterey Bay. It has been reported that whitebait smelt probably spawn in the ocean and remain there as translucent larvae until they are about three inches long. In December 1982 a total of fifty-three whitebait juveniles ranging in size from two inches to three inches was captured in mid-water trawls in San Francisco Bay and South San Francisco Bay by the California Department of Fish and Game. Those specimens were still carrying larval pigmentation. The canine teeth were developed in the middle of the vomer, a thin flat bone forming the inferior and posterior part of the nasal septum and dividing the nostrils in most vertebrates. All of the juveniles had empty gut cavities. Life history information for the whitebait smelt is very limited. The largest specimens were reported as over eight and a half inches in 1953, and a five and a third inch specimen was captured in this study. Whitebait smelt have been used largely as bait, and only to a minor extent for human consumption. Contrary to this thought, white bait smelt in New Zealand is favored as fritters.
Night Smelt, Spirinchus starksi, can be found in the surf zone of beaches from Monterey, to Moss Landing Harbor, to the San Francisco Bay, California and up to the Shelikof Bay of Alaska. From the San Francisco Bay they also travel inland to the Carquinez Strait and into Point Arguello. The same species also range westward along the Arctic coast of the USSR as far as the White Sea.
Night smelt differ from the others by having a large mouth which when wide open reaches past their eyes. Smelt have very small teeth located on the tip of the tongue. Both Night and Day smelt are named for the time when they come to the beach to spawn. When these diminutive little fish gather on Pacific Northwest beaches to spawn they are easily captured with hand-held dip nets. These nets have no impact on essential fisheries habitat or by-catch. Due to low consumer demand and a low impact method of capture, both the day and night smelt fisheries are currently underutilized.
Surf Smelt, Hypmesus pretiosus, can be found along the west coast of North America between Long Beach, California and Prince William Sound and Chignik Lagoon, Alaska.
These smelt spawn twice a year. Schools of fish congregate on shallow beaches with coarse sand and gravel. The eggs have an adhesive quality that sticks to sand grains and gravel, the eggs become encrusted and eventually are completely buried in the substrate in the surf zone. The eggs hatch in about two weeks. In the ocean environment juvenile smelt eat small crustaceans and crab larvae. In fresh water they live on insect larvae. The smelt reach maturity in one to three years and have a life span of three years. Their size ranges between two and a quarter inches to nearly a foot.
Delta Smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus, inhabit the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, Carquinez Strait and Suison Bay.
The delta smelt is a small, slender-bodied fish, with a typical adult size of two to three inches, although some may reach lengths up to five inches. Live delta smelt have a steel blue sheen on the lateral sides and appear somewhat translucent. Like other members of the family Osmeridae, the delta smelt has an adipose fin, a small fleshy fin on the back between the dorsal fin and tail. Delta smelt are found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, which is the area where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers flow into San Francisco Bay. They have been found as far upstream as the mouth of the American River on the Sacramento River and Mossdale on the San Joaquin River. They extend downstream as far as San Pablo Bay. Delta smelt are found in brackish water. They usually inhabit salinity ranges of less than two parts per thousand and are rarely found at salinities greater than fourteen.
During the late winter to early summer, delta smelt migrate to freshwater to spawn. Females only produce between one thousand and twenty-six thousand eggs which sink to the bottom and attach to the substrate. Larvae hatch between ten and fourteen days, they are planktonic, meaning floating with the water currents, and are washed downstream until they reach areas near the entrapment zone where salt and fresh water mix. Delta smelt are fast growing and short-lived with the majority of growth within the first seven to nine months of life. Most delta smelt die after spawning in the early spring although a few survive to a second year. Delta smelt feed entirely on small crustaceans called zooplankton.
Historically delta smelt were one of the most common fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary. Delta smelt abundance fluctuates greatly from year to year, however, information from seven independent data sets demonstrated a dramatic decline of the delta smelt population and low population levels from 1983 to 1992. In 1993 abundance increased in an apparent response to an increase in available habitat brought about by a wet winter and spring. Fall abundance of delta smelt is usually higher when low salinities of two parts per thousand or less occur in Suisun Bay in the preceding spring. The total number of delta smelt is not known, however, delta smelt are considered environmentally sensitive because they have a one year life cycle, unusually low fecundity for a fish with planktonic larvae, a limited diet, and reside primarily within the interface between salt and freshwater.
The threats to the population are multiple and synergistic. In decreasing order of importance, they include: reductions in outflow from the Estuary, entrainment to water diversions, extremely high outflow, changes in food organisms, toxic substances, disease, competition, and predation, loss of genetic integrity by hybridization with the introduced wakasagi. Wakasagi were originally introduced into six warm-water reservoirs in California, far removed from the estuary, they now occur in large numbers in Lakes Folsom, Almanor, and Oroville and have been observed in Cache Slough, the lower American River, the Mokelumne River, and in the CVP/SWP salvage facilities.
Wakasagi and delta smelt are difficult to tell apart morphologically. Allozymes have been used to confirm the identity of morphologically cryptic individuals and have, in fact, revealed two F1 hybrids between delta and wakasagi smelt. The relative proportions of wakasagi amidst delta smelt remained unknown because most samples for prior work were not drawn randomly but were, rather, chosen for difficulty in morphological identification. This current study was initiated to estimate the proportion of wakasagi and the delta-by-wakasagi smelt hybrid in the estuary.
The Department in response to Fish and Game Commission directives initiated an intensive multidisciplinary study program in 1992 designed to monitor the population and to investigate all aspects of delta smelt biology in order to protect sufficient numbers to insure their long- term survival. Results from this study program are being used to make better informed water management decisions. The current research program is under the auspices of the Interagency Ecological Program and is funded by the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
By the end of 1993, the population trend for delta smelt changed from stable to increasing. However, annual changes in the population appear to be affected by the amount of outflow from the Estuary which varies from year to year due to precipitation and water management. In 1994, the population trend as measured by the fall abundance survey indicated that the population was at the lowest point in the twenty-six years of the survey. In 1995, with an extreme amount of rainfall, there is concern that a large portion of larvae that were spawned may have been flushed out of the Estuary. 
A new survey for the threatened Delta smelt shows that the tiny native fish continues its alarming decline, prompting state officials to consider delaying a plan to increase water exports from the estuary.
Netting surveys for the smelt, conducted last month, found that the fish has reached the lowest numbers ever seen in a summer survey conducted since 1959. This comes on the heels of a similar decline reported in a separate fall survey last year.
Researchers hoped that strong runoff from this year's winter storms would revive the smelt numbers. Its population has been known to cycle wildly.
But the new results tell experts this isn't another one of those cycles.
The fall smelt survey launched an unprecedented two-million dollar research effort, now under way, to understand the problem. The decline has also affected the striped bass and other pelagic (frequenting the open ocean) fish, so-called because they live in the Delta's moving waters.
The latest results reflect just the first two surveys in a total of six that make up the summer smelt survey. The surveys are conducted twice a month between June and August.
Jerry Johns, deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the continuing pelagic fish decline may prompt the agency to delay a plan to increase water exports from the Delta.
Called the South Delta Improvement Project, it would increase pumping capacity at the state's Banks Pumping Plant in the south Delta. This could lead to a six percent increase in water exports to Southern California farms and cities on the state system. It also calls for building new movable barriers at key points in the Delta to protect fish and water quality.
Johns said his department may delay the proposed pumping capacity increase while moving forward with the barriers. In other words, it could be split into two parts.
Fishing and conservation groups criticize the project, calling it a bad idea when the cause of the fish declines is unknown.
Delta water exports have reached near-record levels in three of the last five years. This could be one factor affecting the fish, but researchers also suspect two other culprits: water contamination and invasive species.
Certain species of zooplankton, a key food source for fish, have also declined, prompting worries that a portion of the Delta's food chain is collapsing.
Michael Jackson, an attorney for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, fears that the latest numbers on the smelt mean there won't be any left to count in the next fall survey.
"It's another nail for a coffin that is already well nailed down," he said.
The candlefish, Eulachon, found from Northern California to the Aleutian Pribilof Islands of Alaska, is named for the fact that it is so fat at spawning time that when dried and strung on a wick it can be burned as a primitive candle.
The eulachon is bluish on its upper half with silvery sides and belly. The body is long and thin with a large mouth and skinny head. The average adult length is about nine inches.
The eulachon is an Anadromous species, leaving the ocean to ascend rivers and streams to spawn. Adults enter fresh water and spawn from February to mid-May. Spawning is done in large masses and usually during the night. The females' eggs and the males' sperm are dispersed together into the water column and the fertilized eggs quickly attach to gravel, wood or the sandy bottom of rivers. Most adults die shortly after spawning. The seven thousand to sixty-thousand eggs per female hatch in five to six weeks. Because of its small size the larval eulachon are rapidly swept downstream and out into the estuaries and open ocean.
Young larval eulachon in estuaries and near shore ocean areas are sensitive to marine pollution and toxic runoff from agriculture and urbanization. Droughts and industrial pollution have been thought to heavily impact the species' ability to spawn. If conditions are not right, the eulachon will not return to spawn, and will instead stay in the ocean to return in another year when more desirable or favorable spawning conditions exist.
This concludes the introduction to smelt of the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Estuaries.
Before 1948 the commercial smelt fishery was centered on the Atlantic coast. The American or Rainbow smelt are widely distributed throughout eastern as well as in western regions of North America. On the Atlantic coast they are found from New Jersey in the south to Hamilton Inlet, Labrador in the north. Their inland habitats include lakes in New Hampshire, Maine, the Maritimes, Newfoundland, Labrador Quebec and eastern Ontario Less commonly, these smelt, also known as Rainbow Herring, Northwestern Smelt, and Pond Smelt, can be found in Alaska and Northeast Asia.
American or Rainbow smelt, Osmerus mordax, is sensitive to both light and warmer temperatures, schools of smelt tend to concentrate near the bottom of lakes and coastal waters during daylight hours. The American smelt is a slender, silver fish, with a pale green or olive-green back. Fresh from the water, the sides of the fish take on a purple, blue or pink iridescent hue. Most specimens are less than eight inches long although they have been recorded up to fourteen inches.
The rainbow smelt is a slender, elongated, pale fish that averages seven to eight inches in length. A distant relative of trout, salmon and whitefish, it has a greenish back and silvery sides with a bright silver stripe and brown or black spots. The large teeth and distinctive curved canines found in the mouth help distinguish this fish from the whitefish.
The rainbow smelt inhabits large, cool lakes and rivers. It is an important food item for a number of popular sportfish including walleye, landlocked Atlantic salmon, lake trout and other trout, and salmon species. In New York, rainbow smelt are found in Lake Champlain, most of the Finger Lakes, Canadarago Lake Never-sink Reservoir, Lake George, some smaller Adirondack Lakes, the Great Lakes, the Lower Hudson River, and on Long Island. Spawning takes place in the spring from March to May. Adult smelt migrate into tributary streams or onto shoals and scatter their adhesive eggs. The eggs sink and stick to the gravel bottom. After hatching, young smelt feed on zooplankton. Adult smelt eat crustaceans, insects, and other fish. In addition to their importance as a prey fish, rainbow smelt provide excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers catch smelt by ice fishing in the winter and dip netting in the spring. In the Canadian waters of Lake Erie, rainbow smelt are an important commercial fish species. As with alewives, a diet rich in smelt may result in a thiamine deficiency in predators.
The American Smelt or Icefish, Osmerus mordax is most known as a delicious and fragrant food. Silversides or tidewater silversides, Menidia menidia, are found along the Atlantic coast. The similar brook silversides is a freshwater species. 
The Osmeidae family, as well as the related Salmonidae family, include a number of anadromous species, which pass part of the year in salt water, migrating to fresh or brackish water to spawn. Both the American smelt and the Atlantic salmon are among those species which are often able to adapt to a strictly freshwater environment.
Fisherman in the Great Lakes and Maritimes use hooks, lines, nets and spears as fishing gear. Smelt are fished throughout the year, in winter, through the ice.
Studies carried out through a system of tagging indicate that most smelt spawning in the Canadian Miramichi return to the same stream or on one nearby. Very little intermixing of fish has been observed between main branches of the river system or between early and late-run streams. It has been shown, therefore, that the smelt demonstrate a degree of homing.
Female smelt grow more quickly, attain a larger size, and live longer. In the Miramichi River two year-old females were observed to be five and a half inches long on the average. Two year-old males were five and one-third inches. By five years of age, females were over eight inches long and males were a little over seven inches. Smelt restricted to small inland lakes are usually much smaller and often do not exceed four inches in length. Individuals fourteen inches long have been captured in the coastal waters of the Maritimes and in Lake Ontario.
In the Great Lakes, a shrimp-like crustacean, Mysis relicta, is the smelt's principal food. Smelt also consume other zooplankton, insect larvae, and aquatic worms and may eat small quantities of fish, including smaller smelts, sculpins burbots white bass, whitefish, and emerald shiners. Studies of Miramichi River populations show that smelt larvae consume small zooplankton, while adults consume larger zooplankton, including shrimps and shrimp-like organisms, aquatic worms, and small fish, such as juvenile herring, mummichog and silversides.
Conversely, Miramichi smelt are prey for cod, salmon, seals, cormorant, and mergansers, while Great Lakes smelt fall prey to lake trout, salmon, brook trout, burbots, walleye, yellow perch, and birds such as gulls and crows. 
"The Boy's Own Book of Outdoor Sports" written in the early 1900s makes the following suggestion for capturing smelt -
In the United States this fish seldom exceeds ten inches in length, and the usual size is from five to eight inches. In South America they grow to the length of two feet, are semi-transparent, and are most delicious eating. Some of them caught by American sailors at the Straits of Magellan are thirty inches long by eight inches round the body. The smelt is exceedingly plentiful in the waters around Boston, and they are also taken in the rivers of New Jersey and the ponds of Long Island. They are of a pale green color on the back, with silvery sides, and a satin band running along the sides. They may be called a sea fish, though they run up fresh water streams in the spring to spawn. They are caught in October and November and in the winter months by breaking holes in the ice. The tackle used for the smelt is a silk, or silk and hair line, with Limerick trout hooks Nos. 2 to 5, on single gut leaders. The sinker should be pretty heavy to overcome the tide. Shrimp bait is generally used, or small pieces of minnow or frog will answer. If you wish to fish them through a hole in the ice, take a piece of small brass wire a foot and a half long, put it through a piece of lead for a sinker, and fasten your hooks at both ends. Tie on a cotton or flax line and then drop your hooks. You can use three or four of these lines at different holes, setting them, while you are either skating or running round to keep warm. In this way you will get a fine string of smelts in a short time. Smelts will live, breed and thrive when transferred to fresh water ponds; and by some people these fresh water smelt are considered the best eating. They live a long time out of water and hence are good eating after being carried long distances.
Smelts were traditionally an important winter catch in the salt water mouths of rivers in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Fishermen would go to customary locations over the ice using horses and sleighs. Smelt taken out of the cold salt water were much preferred to those taken in warm water. The smelt did not command a high price on the market, but provided a useful supplemental income in times when wants were much less. The smelts were "flash frozen" simply by leaving them on the ice and then sold to fish buyers who came down the rivers on horse and sleigh. They were also an excellent winter meal. They were gutted, heads and tails removed and rinsed in cold water then dipped in flour mixed with salt and pepper and fried in butter. Served with boiled potatoes and pickled beets, they were a welcome addition to winter fare.
Smelt are also found in the waters of Puget Sound in Washington State and in certain tributaries of the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon. They are caught by means of dip nets in the rivers, smelt rakes on the salt water shorelines or by jigging from docks and boats. 
An abundance of fishing tools and implements are housed in the ethnology collection at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Over the years, I have worked with them as collections manager and have come to appreciate the ingenious fishing techniques and beautiful fishing tools of Northwest Coast First Nations.
Due to favorable climate and geography, Northwest Coast peoples had access to an abundance of natural resources. The cedar tree was a great source of raw materials for making tools, containers, buildings and clothes. Food came from local forests, rivers and especially the sea. Fish, seaweed, sea mammals and shellfish were harvested, with salmon perhaps the most abundant and revered dietary source.
There was a pattern to life, dictated by seasonal fish runs. In the springtime, the inhabitants of the winter villages would generally break into smaller family units and travel to where the food was most abundant. Temporary shelters would be set up along the rivers or at the river mouths, to take advantage of the salmon, eulachon, halibut, cod and, to a lesser extent, sturgeon. People would focus their attention on capturing and preserving enough plant and seafood to last through lean winter months. During the winter season, families turned their attention to feasting and potlatching
The most important food source was Pacific salmon: chum, chinook, pink, sockeye and coho. Salmon were so abundant that they could be eaten fresh in large amounts and stored and dried in quantity for the winter. Coastal peoples held great respect for the salmon; often, a special ceremony would commemorate and welcome the first salmon of the year.
Eulachon, a small type of smelt, were also caught and preserved. They were called "candlefish" because they contained so much natural oil that when dried, they could be burned like a candle. Eulachon oil was not only a food product but also a valuable trade commodity. Eulachon fishing rights were highly prized by the Tsimshian and Kwakwakawakw peoples. Other groups such as the Haida and Tlingit had no access or rights to eulachon fishing and would seek oil from those who had a surplus. (Eulachon trade routes were known as "grease trails.") The fishing areas were so important that jurisdiction was closely monitored; kinship groups held exclusive rights that could be passed down as private property. Two main techniques were used to preserve fish: drying and smoking. Eulachon were pierced by sticks threaded through the gill and mouth and were hung on drying racks. With good weather and the right combination of wind and smoke, the fish could cure in about five days.
Eulachon oil, rich and nutritious and a natural source of iodine, was consumed with almost every meal as a seasoning or flavoring agent and was also used for trade with other groups. The fish were allowed to spoil or "ripen" before rendering the oil. Afterwards, they were placed in a vat or a pit filled with water which was heated up to the boiling point. Most of the oil would then rise to the top and be skimmed off and placed into containers. In early times, the oil was stored in "bottles" made from kelp bulbs; later, glass bottles were used.
Ingenious fishing techniques and their accompanying tools developed over time, as they were enhanced, modified or discarded depending on their effectiveness and the availability of materials.
Long rakes, dip nets or funnel traps were often used to gather herring and eulachon. Stone or pole weirs were built to span rivers. These fence-like structures would direct the fish into an area where they could be speared or caught in nets.
While I have introduced only a few examples of the fishing artifacts of Northwest Coast peoples, I hope that the visual appeal of the tools, the ingenious fishing techniques and the thoughtful way materials were used has stirred your interest. Evolving over thousands of years, the result was an efficient and thriving fishing practice that provided more than adequate sustenance while the fragility of the resource was respected. It is truly a marvel to see the "beauty of technology" that these artifacts display. 
"The smelt are running!" is an exultant cry that's as much a symbol of promise as the rainbow. These multitudinous fish are some of the best delicacies of spring in Ontario and an unmistakable sign that nature's bounteous wealth has returned full cycle.
Late April or early May, just after ice-out and before the water has warmed past about 48F (9C), watchful townsfolk head down to lakes and creeks to look for returning smelt on spawning runs. If they see a few, they come back the next day with a net and pail and sit on piers or beaches to wait with other watchers. But it's more than sitting and waiting. They're really connecting with each other and communing with the natural world. Then one day thousands of silvery flashes swarm upstream and along shorelines to spawn, and with luck you can get all you want in minutes.
A survey by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans reveals that in 1995 more than 13,000,000 smelt were caught across the country, and smelting has become so popular that of all the fish retained by recreational fishermen, 8 per cent of them were smelt.
Smelt spawning might last for up to three weeks, until water temperatures reach about 64F (18C), but the peak lasts only days or, at most, a week. Therefore, smelt lovers must tune into the subtleties of spring breakup...and the fishing grapevine. If you're not hooked in, phone the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) office nearest to where you plan to fish.
Smelt are normally deep-water, light-sensitive fish, so spawning runs and hence fishing expeditions usually happen after sunset. In fact, smelt are the only fish (other than baitfish) that can be caught legally after dark in Canada by techniques other than angling.
On my most recent smelt-fishing expedition, four of us took a large dip-net (183 cm or 6 feet square is the legal limit) and drove to a creekmouth near Port Hope. In less than an hour we caught thousands of smelt as they swarmed in from Lake Ontario. It took us two hours to clean the smelt, but we dined all the while on freshly fried ones sizzled pan after pan on the stove beside us. They were tender, moist, sweet, and had that incredibly light, clean flavor that only fresh fish can have; uncooked, they have a slight, pleasant cucumbery odor. Some people remove the backbone when cleaning, but that is unnecessary, unless it's an exceptionally large smelt. The bones of smelt are a good source of calcium. When cooked, just munch them right up with the rest of the fish or pick off the meat corn-on-the cob style.
Here's our favorite way to cook smelt. Fresh smelt are left to air dry about five minutes on each side, or are patted dry with a paper towel. Each fish, held by the tail, is then dipped into the following mixture: one egg, well beaten; 1/2 teaspoon of soy sauce; and 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder. The smelt are then rolled in flour. Whole wheat is good, being a little crunchier than white flour and more nutritious, but white is also fine. If you have a lot of smelt to do, put one cup of flour in a paper or plastic bag, toss in the fish, and shake. Then, place the smelt in a hot, but not smoking, skillet into which three or four tablespoons of oil have been poured.
What did we do with the hundreds of smelt that we couldn't stuff into our bulging bellies that night? We froze some one-meal portions in plastic bags and stacked them in the freezer. They kept well for several months (until they were gone), and were much better tasting than frozen ones you can buy in a supermarket. We smoked the rest in a 6-foot-high canvas teepee, using elm wood, although a maple or apple wood fire is also excellent. We stored them on a long string over the dining area, where they got drier and drier, fishier, saltier, and chewier - quite like dried cod. They were good with beer.
There are many locations to go smelt fishing in Ontario. The fish are in all the Great Lakes and have been introduced to many inland waters. Top spots for smelt dipping include Port Stanley on Lake Erie, Brechin on Lake Simcoe, Whitby on Lake Ontario, Parry Sound on Georgian Bay, Kagawong in the North Channel, Chippewa on Lake Superior, and Lake Muskoka. For the best bet near you, again call your local MNR office. Ed Crossman of the Centre of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, has been involved with Osmerus mordax (rainbow smelt) and he points out the interesting fact that smelt are a recent newcomer to most regions of Ontario. There were no smelt north of Niagara Falls until it was introduced into Lake Michigan in 1906 as prey fish for the Atlantic salmon (the salmon did not take at that time, but the smelt did). It was first reported in Lake Ontario in 1931, and Lake Simcoe, 1962. They are an adaptive species, and do well when introduced either intentionally or unintentionally.
Smelt are not about to become an endangered species; quite the opposite. They are classified as a harmful exotic (non-native) species. They reproduce and grow rapidly, and can upset the delicate ecological balance in a waterbody by using up the food supply that indigenous species depend on. This can and does lead to loss of species diversity and native fish. Like the zebra mussel, smelt can take over. Each one of us plays a role in managing the resources, and we should be careful about accidentally causing harm to a fishery. Introducing smelt to a lake is seldom beneficial. It is illegal to transfer live fish or spawn from one waterbody to another. So, be careful about what's in your bait bucket. Also take care when dumping fish waste, which may contain fertilized eggs (each female smelt lays about 30,000 of them), or even washing buckets that held spawning smelt. Do it away from lakeshores. For the same reason, live smelt may not be used for bait, and in some parts of northwestern Ontario, it is now illegal to possess live or dead smelt while sport fishing.
It is good news, though, that smelt are one of the safest fish to eat. In most locations, there is no restriction on consuming this little carnivore. There are a few, though, so pick up a copy of the Guide to Eating Ontario Sportfish and check the listings for the waters you fish. The guide is available at MNR offices.
You need an Outdoors Card and an angling license to fish for smelt. The summary of the regulations lists when and where you can use either a dip- or seine-net for smelt. Study them carefully. Most Great Lakes streams are off-limits to smelt netting, but you can fish along lakeshores and near creekmouths.
Try smelting this spring. Connect with others who'll be out there, commune with nature, learn about managing a natural resource, and, oh yes, enjoy a great meal of this Canadian delicacy.
Winter smelt fishing on Great Bay in New Hampshire has been going on for decades, if not centuries. The tradition has been kept alive by several hundred fishermen during the bleak and bitter cold New England winters.
Fishing for saltwater smelt through the ice has always been pressured from many different sources, but true to the Yankee spirit, the die hards keep the tradition alive. There's nothing like a cold winter's night on the bay with a gallon of apple cider (or coffee), a warm shack and the hope of a few smelts for the next morning's breakfast...
Great Bay is a tidal estuary which makes ice fishing somewhat a challenge. The ice raises and lowers with the tide. At high tide the ice can be as much as 7 feet above the bottom.
At low tide the ice can be sitting right on the mud! So while you're sitting in your shack, you are going up or down, but very very slowly. Depending on the locations of your shack there is generally six hours of water to fish. Adjusting the height of the lines keeps you busy, as does rebaiting the hooks with fresh bait. And when the smelt are running, its chaos!
First ice is generally around New Years in coastal New Hampshire, although some of the best smelting is done in tidal creeks during November and December. We are usually done fishing on the bay in March; that's when most of the smelt have ventured up into the rivers to spawn.
A catch of thirty smelts makes a pretty good feed, but limiting out at ten quarts, about two hundred fish, is the ultimate!
Unfortunately for smelt, gathering in huge numbers in water barely two feet deep exposes them to gaggles of awaiting prey -- the aforementioned "dip-netters". The Native American tribes of the Columbia River Basin were the first to perfect the art of dip-net fishing there, primarily to catch salmon. Tourists from around the world would come to watch the Indians employ their ingenious method of dip-net fishing. Prior to 1957, the most well-known dip-net fishing site was at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, about 70 miles east of Portland, but in 1957 the flood gates of The Dalles Dam were opened, washing Celilo Falls into memory.
Smelt are not only found scurrying up rivers in the west. Upwards of 250,000 Michigan smelt dippers descend on lakes each spring to dip for the lake variety of smelt. Mid-westerners eat through seas of smelt at Friday night "Fish Fries".
Dip-net fishing for smelt is easy for even the novice fisherman; requiring few skills other than the ability to dip a net in water, scoop up ten pounds of wriggling smelt and quickly deposit the fish into a plastic bucket. As you might imagine, the equipment is fairly basic: a dip-net is pretty much all you need, though waders are a good idea, especially for warding off the bone-chilling effects of standing in cold water for a few hours. Other than that, one only needs a thirst for beer and an appetite for eating a lot of fresh caught fish.
State and local laws vary as to the amount of smelt each dip-netter can catch, but in general, the only binding rules are that you must have your own container for lugging the catch back to the car. In a few states, a fishing license must be purchased, but in most areas the state doesn't charge a penny to let you dip for smelt.
Better yet, cleaning smelt is easy-just one knife cut and a run of the thumb through the body cavity does the trick. One rule of smelt cooking etiquette is to leave the head, fins and tails on and to cook the smelt whole, including the bones. Smelt are the perfect finger food, you simply pull gently on the head, removing the entire backbone and leaving the tender little filets for dipping into mayonnaise.
Smelt can be prepared in any number of ways; baked, baked in mushroom sauce, stewed, stewed with Italian tomatoes, stewed with pickles, pickled, pickled and creamed, barbecued, grilled or fried. Yet, as is most often the case with fresh fish, the simplest of preparations will produce the tastiest results. One should not tamper with a creature that Mother Nature blessed us with thousands of years ago.
In contrast to their petite size and delicate nature, smelt pack a lot of oily, briny, fishy taste, much like sardines or mackerel, so you want to use a cooking method that will allow the oil to keep the fish moist. For this reason, I choose either smoking or deep-frying smelt.
Remember, you aren't smoking a ten pound side of salmon, nor are you frying up hefty filets of cod with your chips. Smelt are tiny, delicate fish that take much less time cooking than other types of seafood, only about 15 minutes in the smoker and 2 minutes in the deep-fryer. Ah, yes...spring is in the air -- and in the water too.
On a blue sky sunny morning, Steve and I took an unusual day from work and art making. We ventured across the Valley of the Moon into the Sonoma Valley specifically to dine on a delicious, and may I say terribly cute dish, on a restaurant patio in Glenn Ellen, California. This was very near the time I first discovered the smelt of Monterey Bay Aquarium. The dish was called "Fries with Eyes". Irresistible. I have personally yet to gather or cook smelt. But I have found some tempting recipes. The most civilized, gourmet, and prettily put recipes are over one hundred years old.
Smelt are a rich and oily mild-flavored fish. The most popular varieties for eating are "Eulachon" and "Whitebait".
Smelt roe is bright orange in color, and is often used to garnish sushi.
Rainbow smelt and eulachon are the major commercial species. Because smelt are small and usually eaten whole, they are most commonly sold dressed or drawn. The soft bones are edible, but the fish is also easy to bone after cooking. 
Low in fat and calories, but rich in high-quality protein, lean fish is very healthy. Fish is a good source of vitamin E, a major antioxidant nutrient, and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which play a leading role in the prevention of heart disease. Omega-3s are also thought to have protective or healing effects in autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, and to help prevent cancer. 
The smaller smelt are considered excellent "Fish Chips".
"This evening we were visited by Comowool the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women and children of his nation... The Chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin, some hats, stergeon and a species of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us by means of skimming or scooping nets... I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preparation whatever. They are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever taste, even more delicate and luscious than the white fish of the lakes which hae heretofore formed my standaart of excellence among the fishes." 
Smelts when quite fresh have a perfume resembling that of a cucumber, and a peculiarly delicate and agreeable flavor when dressed. Draw them at the gills, as they must not be opened; wash and dry them thoroughly in a cloth; dip them into beaten egg-yoke, and then into the finest bread-crumbs, mixed with a very small quantity of flour; fry them of a clear golden brown, and serve them crisp and dry, with good melted butter in a tureen.
Prepare them as for frying; pour some clarified butter into the dish in which they are to be sent to table, arrange them neatly in it, with the tails meeting in the centre, strew over them as much salt, mace, and cayenne, mixed, as will season them agreeably, cover them smoothly with a rather thick layer of very fine breaded crumbs, moisten them equally with clarified butter poured through a small strainer, and bake the fish in a moderately quick oven, until the crumbs are of a fine light brown. A glass of sherry, half a teaspoonful of essence of anchovies, and a dessertspoonful of lemon juice, are sometimes poured into the dish before the smelts are laid in. about 10 minutes.
Clean and wipe as dry as possible twelve selected smelts. Stuff, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and brush over with lemon juice. Place in buttered shallow plate, cover with buttered paper, and bake five minutes in hot oven. Remove from oven, sprinkle with buttered crumbs, and bake until crumbs are brown. Serve with Sauce Bearnaise.
Stuffing: Cook one tablespoon finely chopped onion with one tablespoon butter three minutes. Add one-fourth cup finely chopped mushrooms, one-fourth cup soft part of oysters, (parboiled, drained, and chopped), one-half teaspoon chopped parsley, three tablespoons Thick White Sauce and one-half cup fish force-meat.
Thick White Sauce: 2 Tbs butter, 2 Tbs flour, 2 cups scalded milk, 1/4 tsp salt, and a few grains pepper. Put butter in saucepan, stir until melted and bubbling; add flour mixed with seasonings, and stir until thoroughly blended. Pour on gradually the milk, adding about one-third at a time, stirring until well mixed then beating until smooth and glossy. If a wire whisk is used, all the milk may be added all at once; and although more quickly made if milk is scalded, it is not necessary.
Fish Force Meat: Use 1/4 c fine stale bread crumbs, 1/3 c milk, 1 egg, 2/3 c raw fish, salt.
Cook bread and milk to a paste, add egg well beaten, and fish pounded and forced through a puree strainer. Season with salt. Bass, halibut, or pickerel are the best fish to use for force-meat. Force-meat is often shaped into small balls.
Clearly smelt can be tasty whether prepared simply or with style. Smelt are also quite healthful being low in fat and calories, but rich in high-quality protein. They are a good source of vitamin E, a major antioxidant nutrient and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which play a role in the prevention of heart disease. Omega-3s are also thought to have protective or healing effects in autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, and to help prevent cancer.
Brush smelts with oil and sprinkle with salt. Place on tray in oven and broil each side until brown and crispy. May be cooked on a grill instead. Arrange on a platter with new potatoes and dill. 1 pound smelts, cleaned and boned. 1/4 cup olive oil.
Beer Batter Smelt: Clean smelt and salt lightly. Roll in flour. Dip in batter of: 2 eggs and 1 can beer. Mix batter well. Cook at 350 degrees.
Orange Smelt: Two pounds smelt, salt to taste, pepper to taste, 1/4 cup melted butter, 1/4 cup orange juice, and 1 tsp grated orange rind. Arrange smelts in greased baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine melted butter with orange juice and rind. Pour over fish. Bake in 450 degree oven 10 minutes serves 6-8.
Romano Cheese Batter Smelt: Cut fin and tail fin, two fins on sides. Check inside. Wash and drain dry. Batter: 1/2 cup flour, 4 eggs, 1/2 cup Romano cheese, black pepper, oregano, garlic powder. Like pancake batter, hurry up and put in hot oil until brown.
New Zealand Whitebait Fritters: 1 pound whitebait, 1 Tbs chopped parsley, 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 cloves garlic, 2 cups basic batter. Wash and pat dry the whitebait. Batter ingredients: 2 Tbs white flour, salt, 2 Tbs olive oil, 6 ounces water, and 1 Tbs parsley. To prepare the batter: whisk the flour into the water quickly, so as not to form lumps, bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Then mix in the oil and salt and 1 Tbs parsley, remove from fire, and let cool. Dip the fish into the batter and mix so that the batter covers it evenly. Heat the oil with the garlic. Remove garlic when brown. When oil is very hot, take a spoonful of the batter with the fish and fry until golden brown. Place on paper towels to rid of excess fat and serve very hot.
Pancake Batter Smelt: Season smelt to taste. Prepare pancake mix according to directions. Dip smelt in pancake batter; fry until golden brown. Can be fried in hot fat in a deep fryer.
Flat Beer Batter Smelt: 15-20 smelt, 1 medium egg, 1 cup flat beer, 1 up and 3 Tbs flour, 1/2 tsp salt, shortening or oil for frying. Clean smelt, wash thoroughly and wipe dry. Heat oil in saucepan over medium to high flame. Beat egg with milk or beer. Add flour and salt and stir until smooth. Dip smelt in batter and fry in hot deep fat until crisp and golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove from fat and drain on absorbent paper. Sprinkle with seasoned salt. Serve immediately.
Bread Crumb Cheese Batter Smelt: 2 pounds cleaned smelts, 2 eggs beaten, 1 cup bread crumbs, 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1 Tbs parsley, 1 Tbs Romano cheese, 1 clove garlic chopped fine, and 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Rinse fish in cold water. Drain; set aside. Combine bread crumbs, flour, parsley, cheese, garlic and salt. Mix thoroughly. In separate bowl beat eggs; set aside. In large skillet add oil and heat. Using a fork dip smelts into beaten egg, then into bread crumbs. Coat fish completely. Place in heated oil and cook until golden brown.
Pickled Smelt 48 cleaned smelt, 1 cup rock salt, and 1 qt. Water. Mix and cover fish for 24 hours. Drain and discard water. Cover with white vinegar 24 hours drain. Mix and simmer 15 minutes: 1 cup water, 3/4 cups sugar, 2-3 Tbs pickling spice, 1 cup port wine, and 1 tsp lemon juice. Pour this over smelt and sliced onions. Let stand 12 hours.