Just a few yards south of the Overleaf Lodge and Fireside Motel, Smelt Sands State Park is a great place to spy a migrating gray whale, watch a storm approaching the shoreline, photograph a rainbow, or marvel at the sunset. Strange that a place with “sand” in its name has so little sand. Mostly, the park is comprised of basalt, siltstone and sandstone rock formations.
But what are smelt? Although they resemble sardines, these small, silvery fish are actually relatives of salmon. They grow to be about 6 to 9 inches and live 3 to 5 years. Spending most of their lives in the ocean, smelt typically migrate up rivers to spawn. Yachats is one of the few ocean beaches where they spawn.
For centuries, American Indians in the area would catch smelt with dip nets at this location. Residents of Yachats adopted the practice, as shown in this historic photo from the 1920s. Locals reminisce about catching and eating the fish, freezing them, or canning them like sardines. For many years, locals held a smelt festival, including a fish fry of thousands of the little fish. The smelt no longer run, and the fishing and the smelt festival subsequently stopped. Occasionally you can see a smelt swimming near the shore, or find one that has washed up on shore.