"This evening we were visited by Comowooll the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women & children of his nation…The chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin some hats, stergeon and a [s]pecies of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us [Cowlitz River] by means of skiming or scooping nets…I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever. they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted…" - Meriwether Lewis, Feb. 24, 1806
They're known as smelt to most of us, the species named Eulachon or, in Latin, Thaleichthys pacificus, these small six to nine-inch fish that in the early spring in the Northwest swim from the ocean up larger rivers like the Columbia to shallower tributaries such as the Sandy River. I've heard stories of the smelt runs most of my life, their numbers so large at times that they could choke a smaller river, drawing hordes to the banks with dipping nets when the word went out that the smelt were running.
Native Americans in British Columbia with smelt.
From 1938 to 1992 the average catch in the Columbia during the season was 2 million pounds, but from 1993 to 2006 the number declined precipitously to an average of 43,000 pounds. Though the exact causes of the depletion are unknown, it's theorized that it's due to habitat loss from dams, pollution and/or climate change. In 2010 the southern eulachon was listed under the Endangered Species Act and harvests were strictly regulated or, in recent years, completely curtailed.
This year, for the first time in several years, the smelt season was opened to dip netting, generating much excitement among locals, some whose families had a long history with the annual smelt runs. Ethan and Ashley Bisagna, owners of Feastworks, were among those who jumped at the chance, packing up their three kids, ages 11, 4 and 18 months, along with Ashley's brother, Austin, to head down to the banks of the Sandy.
Ethan demonstrating how it's done.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife had designated just two six-hour windows, on March 15 and 22nd from 6 am to noon, and the family arrived early to find the banks already lined with hopeful dippers. (Click on the photo at right to see the crowds on the opposite bank.)
“There were hundreds of people out excited about the smelt run. It looked just like the old dip netting pictures from the 50s. It was pretty cool to be a part of it,” said Ashley. “Austin can remember our grandfather going out to dip net for the smelt every year.”
A little salt and fire is all it takes.
With a limit of 10 pounds per adult, Ashley said that they had their limit of 30 pounds within two hours. Shortly after arriving home, they'd thrown their first batch on the fire for lunch and the rest were smoked and canned for their personal larder.
“These are an oily little fish with a really clean, delicate flavor…they’re delicious,” said Ethan, adding that the family is already strategizing about next year's season.
Historical photo from Wikimedia. Other photos courtesy Ashley Bisagna.