My grandma tells stories of the family dipping a literal bathtub worth of smelt and dip nets so full they broke when pulled from the water wrong. I had never had the opportunity to harvest smelt before but with her stories of a bountiful and delicious harvest I jumped at the chance when a day opened this year.
Due to stock mismanagement our current smelt run is much humbler than the one she remembers. The trip was still worthwhile though; we spent the day catching up with loved ones and came home with twenty pounds of smelt. AJ and I spent Friday night with family so we could get to the river in the early daylight hours. We followed my uncle Kent and a line of headlights to a stretch of the muddy river that he said was a good dipping spot. Considering the caravan; I’d say he wasn’t the only one who thought that.
There is a technique to catching the smelt with a dip net. I wasn’t so great at it. If you’re going out on your own don’t be discouraged if it takes you a little while to figure out. According to my uncle, the smelt weren’t running that great but we each got our ten pound limit in a half hour; that’s the fasted fishing I’ve ever been a part of. Back at his house, Uncle Kent showed us how to clean the fish and my Aunt gave me a pickled fish recipe. We spent the rest of the day catching up with family. Our trip was a blast and harvesting delicious, nutritious food was totally worth the price of gas and labor.
Smelt Dipping in Washington
Our smelt have had enough problems to end up on the threatened species list. This means there are only a few short days open to dip them each year. These short seasons help researchers conduct audits of the stock and keep the public interested in smelt. People have to care about a fish if they are going to save it and what better way to get them to care about it than to show them that smelt are fun to catch and delicious? Since our smelt population is recovering it’s important to respect the limit set by the state; we need the fish going upstream to make babies! Also, remember there are plain clothed game wardens all over the place. Being greedy could cost you a lot more than some extra smelt are worth.
The runs usually open for a day at a time in February. We would have gone again if we had any room left in the freezer. You can find places to dip smelt on your own but if you want to find a good spot on the river, you’ll need to talk to some locals. Currently, you do not need any kind of license to dip smelt for personal use in Washington state. This may not always be the case and other states may have different laws, check with your fish and game department. You can find Washington state information here. You’ll just need to search for smelt and the year to see if any dates have been announced yet.
What you’ll need For dipping Smelt:
To clean the fish:
~A pair of scissors preferably, a knife will work
How to dip smelt
I’m going to be honest: I was really bad at this.
You need upper body strength to drag the net through the water and if there’s one thing I’m lacking, it’s upper body strength. I’m sure if it was a better run I would have been more successful but when the run is slow you need all the skill and strength you can muster to get those fishies in the net.
Make sure you’re standing on solid footing. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your excitement and go sliding down a muddy bank into the river; not exactly the situation you want to be in.
The smelt follow the banks of the river, getting closer or further, and deeper or shallower depending on how much they’re being harassed by people with nets. Start out dipping as far out and as deeply as possible. Keep up a good even speed while you’re pulling the net through the water. We were dipping with the current, but I don’t know if dipping against it would make a difference. I suppose maybe it’s like sneaking up on the fish?
When you bring in the net, keep it in the water and pull it as close to the bank as possible before you lift it out. My uncle said a good run could fill your net with enough fish that it would break if lifted straight out of the water.
Each person needs to have a separate bucket for their limit; once you get them off the river and start cleaning them it’s fine to consolidate your fish.
Cleaning the Smelt
You always want to clean, cook or freeze fish as soon as possible for the best quality. Ideally before they come out of rigor, which is maybe five hours depending on the temperature and what not.
Cleaning the smelt is really easy with scissors. Cut the head off just behind the gills, you can save these to make stock. Then slit the smelt open from the vent forward and scrape the body cavity out. If you have a female with eggs you’ll need to remove those gently or leave them in. You can also clean smelt with a knife, it works fine for male but it’s nearly impossible to clean a female with a knife and save the eggs. When cleaning with a knife don’t start your cut at the vent; it’s easier to cut down the body cavity towards the vent in this case. Once the body cavity it empty we give the fish a good scrub. When a sizable number are cleaned we rinse them again before preparing them for whatever their destiny may be.
We want to use the eggs separately for something but don’t really know to do with them yet. You can leave the eggs in the body cavity and they are delicious anyway you’ll prepare the smelt. If you plan to smoke them it’s fine to leave the fish whole. The fish are easier to move while smoking if they are whole and the bones are easy to remove once the fish is smoked. Since both the eggs and the fish freezer well we put them in the freezer until we can smoke, pickle or cook them.
It’s a white, oily, very delicate fish that cooks quickly. My favorite way to eat smelt is baked with lemons and garlic and then eaten on toast or rice. Frying them whole is also a popular. However you decide to prepare your smelt be careful not to over season or overcook it. Smelt is at its best when done simply.