California Jack Smelt

by Louis Bignami

Obviously, I'm brain-damaged from winter steelheading. Blood fell from my brain to warm up legs stuck in frigid flows on days when your line freezes to your guides. Readers mature enough to remember the 20 years I wrote from Northern California know that already. Youngsters can take my word for it.

Why else should I "lust in my heart" for jack smelt when I live in Northern Idaho halfway between the 20 pound B-run steelhead in the Clearwater River and the 20 pound pike and landlocked salmon in Lake Coeur d'Alene? Why, when I wrote North Tahoe Trout, don't I feel the need to try for big browns on the Truckee River? Why don't I mourn the loss of favorite California trout streams, like Goodrich Creek, to fee fishing? Why don't I worry why things aren't like they were in the old 100-shad days on the Feather River? 

Mostly, I suppose, because the old days weren't that good. Better, yes, but we got skunked then as now, and time makes us all retrospective experts. And today's increased number of anglers should be offset by the shorter time to get to action. Spend the twelve to fifteen hours it used to take to drive to Crescent City steelhead and you can be well into Oregon. Drive all night, as we used to do regularly to reach Oregon's Pacific City salmon, and you can be here in Idaho.

Certainly, population doesn't help fishing. Last trip to California while finishing up my book Country Towns of Northern California, I meandered through Markleyville -- streams weren't that crowded -- and wound up over the Sonora Pass to fish Deadman's Creek. Back in the days when Gary Cooper made For Whom the Bells Tolled here, you rarely saw another angler above Kennedy Meadows. Last year each and every hole I could see from the road sported anglers after, I was told, the newly stocked trout were planted (we call them "truck trout" here in Idaho). California's certainly changed since I started flyfishing for trout around Kennedy Meadows back in the 1950's. However, a day spent with the nephews smelt fishing felt like old times in Berkeley.

Granted, you can't leave your bike at the university courts and hit tennis balls as was the case in the 1950's. The courts are buried under the anthropology building, and I'm told anything left for more than a moment grows legs and walks. It's been a long time since my brother and I were banned from the Lion's Club Smelt Derby down on Berkeley Pier, too. In the meantime, the pier's truncated sports lights and concrete, and the tacky old fisherman's shack transmigrated into posh pubs and yachts for yuppies.

But the jack and top smelt still school here. Big jacks still hit streamers, and, like most saltwater fish, could pull a trout inside out. Best of all, jacks still school just a roll cast from seawalls, piers and shores. Sprinkle in the odd surf, pier or walleye perch if flies sink, and spice the mix with a chance at a salmon, striper or even a steelhead. We've taken aquatic oddments like rockfish and Capazone off the beach below the Golden Gate Bridge and, on one memorable day in an "El Nino" year, some odd-looking "perch" that a UC Ichthyologist identified as "pompano" before he talked me out of samples for the formaldehyde jar.

Big fish action? A home-made streamer took a halibut big enough to require the help of a fish box net off Santa Cruz's Municipal Pier. We've taken barracuda, stripers up to 25 pounds and much else with streamers in years past. I've caught sharks and rays on flies and remember getting spooled the week after I bought my first tapered line with a number, rather than the old "HDH" label.

However, this mix of underutilized species pulls me back to beaches and bays when we visit California. While I helped popularize party boat "potlucking" back in the 1960's and 1970's, party boats don't attract me any more. These days, I take Mark Twain's bon mote "incarceration with the certainty of seasickness and the possibility of shipwreck" to heart.

So dawn and incoming tides draw me down to the Berkeley Pier in time to watch the party boats head out and well before the commute traffic. That special smell of sea, weed and flats brings back memories of striper action behind the old heliport, and days when we'd dig pile worms on the flats to sell for a quarter a dozen to the tattered bait shop. Things change. You now have to lock your car, but you don't need to watch for holes in the pier.

Gear isn't important. Two or three streamers on six inch droppers off a six foot long leader do the job with whatever sinking tip or floating line comes to hand as smelt run from two to eight feet deep depending on the tide and depth. If you can, run streamers close to pilings and, if it's too windy to cast up tide, let the wind take your line and flies down-current into the eddies where the bracing pilings join the vertical pilings that support the pier. Don't worry about the fine points! This isn't Hat Creek! 

Streamers in white with a bit of silver, mylar, blue or green mixed in work. So do red and yellow just about anything else when smelt school; when smelt don't school, switch to any hellgrammite imitation along pilings for perch. I like, as opposed to "insist on" 6X size 8 hooks dressed without tails to avoid short nips.

This isn't, after all, the Madison where catch and release results seem measured only by the speaker's creativity and the listener's gullibility. This is the Berkeley flats where we used to rig "trolley lines" with sash cord and weights and a sliding weight armed with 25 hooks to catch hundreds of smelt to be sold to the Chinese grocer on San Pablo Avenue.

Best of all, with the loss of the old overhead cables, it's easy to cast toward Richmond and up-current on the incoming tide. Today, roll casting maximizes fly-in-the-water time and minimizes the chance of hooking joggers on backcasts. Then, as the line sweeps toward the Berkeley shore, slow hand twisting keeps streamers moving seductively just off the pilings. I learned to roll cast here back in the old days of overhead wires. It's easier now.

The morning warms as the line spins in and flips out on those wonderful days when the foghorns croak and the Golden Gate's fog shrouded. Troubles fade and, if you escape on weekdays, the sight of commuter traffic reinforces one's enjoyment until smelt school even if you need to head to work later in the day.

Fish come in bunches, and strikes aren't subtle. Play one for a bit and another joins in. Do it right and you'll average two filled hooks. If you go with a buddy, let your partner cast near your line and double up. Do this right and you'll hold smelt in the area.

Then it's time to swing fish up on the pier. I leave the graphite at home and use an old glass rod that's taken thousands of smelt over 30 years. You may need a steelhead stick and ten pound test leader to do this; you might hand line if you use expensive rods. There's no problem with releases. Most who fish the pier are out after dinner, and anxious to take your catch. There's definitely a problem if you hook a striper or several big perch. Some use a weighted pier gaff; others opt for crab nets. I've even led fish down the pier to the bank. If you catch and release you can, of course, simply break fish off.

I keep the smaller male jack smelt and all the top smelt I catch. I enjoy the taste of smelt fillets sautéed in butter with a squeeze of lemon as much as most trout, and find saltwater perch the equal of crappie. Smelt do, especially in the larger, pot-bellied females, run to worms along the spine that are easy to spy in fillets. Worms aren't problems for people except esthetically -- ask a vet about such "protein supplements" in chicken or beef if you want to risk vegetarianism -- and seven to nine inch long male jacks and almost all translucent blue or green five to seven inch top smelt avoid the problem.

Smelt do offer trophy specimens. Fourteen, fifteen or sixteen inch smelt run in the bay and, about 45 years back, we caught a 26 inch smelt from the old fishing pier down at Port San Luis. However, smelt are almost exactly trout size; they just fight harder!

Some piers challenge the fly flinger. Piers get taller near the ocean, and beach piers are too far from the water for efficient casting. That's one reason seawalls or, even better, dinks and skiffs improve your casting platforms. Float tubes can work, if you've not seen "JAWS" lately, you stay away from Great White convention spots like the mouth of Tamales Bay, and you pay very close attention to wind and tide.

Years back when striper fly rod records seemed to change several times a season, float tubes were home-made from big inner tubes and mover's straps so we could wade sand bars and float over the mud sinkholes in Richardson's Bay or on the Berkeley flats. Then I switched to a wooden skiff which I could row from Berkeley Harbor out and around the pier while trolling big white streamers for stripers. A couple of smaller dropper streamers took smelt. Then, if I hooked a striper, I'd anchor out and cast. Every few times I'd luck into a limit of five fish -- been a long time! Most days the wind would come up and I'd surf the boat home as waves built and the Berkeley shallows churned brown.

Such an approach works today as long as the Golden Gate stays foggy. When it clears under the Bay Area's most beautiful bridge, winds follow within the hour. Then it's time to switch to spots like the inside of the Richmond Seawall, the protected waters off Sausalito, or down toward the Brisbane tubes. Even more protected hot spots along the Alameda Estuary and, at times, in Oakland's Lake Merrit improve options.

However, smelt aren't limited to the Bay Area. We've taken them from Pillar Point, Santa Cruz and Monterey piers and headlands, off San Simeon, around Port San Luis or Morro bay to the south. North of the Bay Area, Tomales Bay and, if you don't mind mud and such, Estero Drake all produce. Another favorite spot's the inlet to Bodega Bay from either side. I've caught a considerable number of smelt off harbor floats and walls.

The time of year when action peaks varies. In Berkeley, for example, fishing runs from Washington's Birthday through fall. On the coast it's year round. The key, as with other marine species, is days with clear water, limited wind and big tidal changes.

Ease and access make smelt special. Frankly, I'd rather fish more hours than I drive, and in these days of shrinking leisure it's nice to know that you can toss your fly gear in the back of the car and hit a pier in an hour. Back in banking days, I'd change to coveralls and fling flies near the St. Francis Yacht Club for a couple of hours after work. Then I'd return home in a civil mood without the usual dubious joys of traffic jams. 

Kids suit smelt too. Cane poles, a small bobber AKA "strike indicator" and pile worm sections threaded on long-shank, size 8 hooks offer an action introduction to angling. Factor in the odd perch and there's enough action for anyone. That's the reason to schedule your California visits to smelt season.