Commercial Smelt Fishing

Fishing boats

Credit: Phil Moy

The net is reeled in by a winch onto a large spool

Credit: Phil Moy

The commercial fisherman's strategy differs from scientific sampling. Like anglers, commercial fishermen, want to catch the most fish possible; to do this commercial fishermen change where and how they fish. They modify their nets, change speed, or move from one area to another to maximize their catch on a day-to-day basis.

Smelt season is only open a few months out of the year. The commercial smelt season is open during the winter so many days are lost to poor weather.  As a result, the fishers work six to seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day to bring in the smelt for the year.

The boats leave the dock at about 4:45 am, and head out to an area about 16 miles off shore in water 200 to 250 feet deep. Each trawl haul lasts about 2.5 to 3 hours. Moving along at about 3 mph, we cover six or seven miles before we pull up the net to empty the catch from the net.

The smelt schools occur near the bottom. The net is kept on the bottom by heavy chains. Floats along the top of the net keep it upright. Trawl doors on the outside of the net act like planer boards to keep the mouth of the net open. A grill-like device, called a diverter, in the throat of the net keeps salmon, trout and other large fishes out of the smelt bag. Any large fish brought to the boat are quickly returned to the water. Any sport species too small to be separated that end up in the bag are also returned to the water.

The net is quickly re-tied and set back into the water to begin another trawl. Once the net is in place, the stern doors are shut and the catch is sorted. Sorting is done by hand on a table that folds down from the side of the boat. One crewmember shovels the catch onto the sorting table, while the others hand-separate the catch. All smelt go into common tubs. Chubs large enough for smoking are placed in one tub and small chubs are placed in another tub. Large chubs are gutted in preparation for smoking.

Once the catch is sorted, we ride along until the next trawl is completed, then the process repeats. This operation is carried through three times, picking up the final trawl at about 3 pm. After the last trawl the net is hauled into the boat and stored on the spool. The boat is turned toward home and the last haul is sorted on the way back to the dock.. Catch not sorted on the way home is finished at dockside.

The boats return to the dock at about 4:30 pm. At the dock, the large chubs and smelt are taken inside for processing. The small chubs are placed in large totes and will be used to make fertilizer. The smelt are tipped into a hopper at the base of a conveyor. The conveyor carries the fish into the sorter that separates the large eating-size smelt form small ones and other small fish such as the sticklebacks and sculpins. The largest smelt are separated out for use as bait. The smallest fish are sold with the small chubs for fertilizer. This sorting of the catch takes about another 3 hours, the day finishes up around 7:30 to 8:00 pm.

The eating-size fish are refrigerated overnight, then the next day are taken to the cleaning room. Here the fish are carefully placed in a machine that will first remove the heads, then gut the fish. The fish are all laid on the same side with the head pointed in one direction. The belt carries them past the cutting blade, and then drops them onto the gutting belt. The cleaned fish are quickly packaged with ice for freezing or shipment to retail outlets or are chilled in the front counter for sale at the shop.