Smelt Sands

Smelt Sands State Recreation Area Lives Up To Its Name

There is one reason that Smelt Sands State Recreation Area is named as it is, and you guessed it: smelt.

For centuries, coastal Native Americans gathered at the mouth and along the banks of the Yachats River to fish for the smelt charging upriver to spawn starting in April. A harbinger of spring, this run of abundance was celebrated among the people. They used dip nets or gill nets to catch these small, silvery fish that are related to salmon.

Dip nets are essentially a scoop of net that the fisher either dips or swoops into the water from the banks to catch the smelt on the move. Gill nets are longer and spread across a distance of water, trapping fish on their way upstream.

In more modern times, these smelt runs started to become irregular if nonexistent in some rivers by the 1990s. Technically called Eulachon smelt (Thaleichthys pacificus), they were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010. Like salmon, they start and end their lives in fresh water, spending 1 to 3 years at sea.

With their numbers on the general decline, recreational fishing of smelt has for the most part ceased. As numbers have improved more recently, occasional fishing is allowed at specific sites, so be sure to check with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife for smelt fishing rules and regulations.

Few smelt, however, traverse the Yachats River anymore.

The Yachats Fish Fry

For years in July, Yachats would hold a fish fry event featuring smelt. When the numbers of eulachon declined, the event would draw the fish from elsewhere: Alaska, for example.

Smelt are approximately 6 to 10 inches long and full of heart-healthy oil. In fact, the fish has so much oil, it has been nicknamed candle fish for the fact that it burns like a candle if placed upright.

From the archives of Oregon State University Extension Marine Advisory Program, a pamphlet called “Smelt Abounding! Dip Net To Dish,” dated July 1981, offers advice on cleaning, storing, thawing, and finally, preparing your smelt, including “Pan-Fried Smelt With Onion Cream Gravy.” It’s simple enough. Fry the onions. Fry the fish. Remove the fish, then add cream or milk to the onions and simmer before pouring over the fish.

Sounds delicious.

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