Summer is the season for surf-smelt dipping along Washington's ocean beaches.
The devotees come to Kalaloch Beach 4 from as far as Spokane and Bend, Ore., standing knee deep in saltwater, bracing for the whirling tide. Most come in waders and wet suits. A few old-timers tough it out in shorts and flip flops, makeshift broomstick nets at the ready.
They’re after surf smelts, glassy-eyed fish that are bigger than anchovies but smaller than sardines, a delicacy best enjoyed pan fried or smoked.
It’s the summer run for surf smelts along the Washington coast. Families and fishermen net them during high tides, competing with sea otters, seagulls and cormorants who snatch them before they spawn near shore.
Along this pebbly beach off Highway 101, a wilderness by the ocean, lies Washington’s most scenic surf-smelt dip-netting spot. Sure, there are calmer spots around Puget Sound, but for a weekend getaway to dip for smelt, no place is more majestic than Kalaloch Beach 4 in Olympic National Park. It’s a short drive from the Hoh rain forest, hot springs resorts, campgrounds and the town of Forks, the setting for the popular “Twilight” series.
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“My wife and I come here. It’s a mystic place and dipping smelt is something I really enjoy,” said 68-year-old Tom Northup, a retired state Fish and Wildlife manager who is building a retirement home nearby. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.”
Surf-smelt dipping is popular with local Native Americans but isn’t a mainstream activity in Washington. It’s not steeped in tradition as it is around the Great Lakes or along the Atlantic coast. Washington doesn’t require a fishing license to dip recreationally, and smelt dip nets are hard to find at local fishing and sporting goods stores. Many are custom made, using funnel-shaped bags with half-inch mesh to rake the tiny fish.
Smelts grow up to eight inches, with bones soft enough to eat whole. Most chefs prefer to gut them by cutting the heads off and running a blade through the body cavity before dusting the smelt with flour and letting them sizzle on a skillet.
Smelts caught along the coast are firmer and less oily than the Columbia River variety listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Despite the fact that Washington is one of few states with surf-smelt runs (Alaska, Oregon and parts of California are the others), few residents know about this species.
Smelt dipping is fading partly because the state is running out of public shoreline where they can be caught, said Dan Penttila, a former marine biologist with the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Department and a leading authority on smelt.
To raise revenue, the state has sold about 60 percent of the shoreline around Puget Sound for private development, areas where smelt runs were abundant, he said.
“With that came ‘No trespassing’ signs,” Penttila said.
In 1978, the state Fish and Wildlife agency repurchased Ross Point on Kitsap County’s Sinclair Inlet to reserve it as a “public smelt beach.”
Easy to learn
Whole families, including many Asian immigrants, dip for smelts and cook them by the campfire at Kalaloch Beach 4.
Smelt dipping is easy to learn. Stand in shallow water and strain the water with the net when the waves break. You can see the surf smelts on the waves, jumping or flipping.
Smelt dip as if you were raking your front yard. You push the net out in front of you and sweep it back toward you as if you were raking leaves.
Some use long poles to keep from getting drenched. As I watched recently, one woman in waders plunged in waist deep, with a net that resembled an oversized tennis racket.
Northup wears swimming trunks and a T-shirt, and uses kayaking boots to grip the rough, pebbly surface.
“You’re kind of dancing back and forth,” he said. “Judge the wave and figure out where you can stand. The waves are strong.”
Northup is one of the most experienced smelt dippers around, according to some of his former colleagues at Fish and Wildlife. He’s certainly efficient, dipping with little wasted motion, using his legs and body for leverage to scoop up the net.
Northup’s rule of thumb is if you don’t see smelts on those tides, it’s not worth dipping. It can vary from day to day.
We didn’t see any that afternoon, so we finally just sat on a log, listening to the waves. The beauty of smelt dipping, Northup said, is when smelts aren’t running, you can just sit on the beach and take in the view.
Between bites of a venison sandwich, he pointed out a bald eagle hovering over a spruce. There were otters lying on their backs, and in the distance, a whale spouting.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org