People smelt dipping in the area north of Kalaloch at Trail 4 in August 1959. (Rex Gerberdings)

People smelt dipping in the area north of Kalaloch at Trail 4 in August 1959. (Rex Gerberdings)

BACK WHEN: Readers share memories of smelt dipping

MANY READERS COMMENTED on the December “Picture from the Past” and they all knew that the people in the photo were smelt dipping.

The area was north of Kalaloch at Trail 4 and most recognized the area.

The photo was taken in August 1959.

This particular area has been known for smelting for many years.

The Native Americans were the first to go after the little fish. They caught smelt in their nets all up and down the Pacific coast.

Jack Napiontek wrote that the December photo brought back memories of times he went smelt dipping with his grandfather.

He attended Joyce School and was 8 years old when his grandfather picked him up at the school and they went to Twin Rivers and Deep Creek.

They weren’t always successful but when he was older, he and his family went to Kalaloch, and got smelt by the bucket full.

In the 1950s, after he got married, he took his wife and her family to Kalaloch but they got so many smelt, she did not want to go back as she disliked cleaning the fish.

Trail hard to walk

Napiontek remembered Trail 4 being so muddy it was hard to navigate.

He said, “The Indians built a rail car track to bring the smelt up from the beach to the roadway.”

Nancy Whitney Lund from Port Townsend wrote that in the 1950s when there was a good razor clam tide, her family would camp at Kalaloch Beach, and dig for clams in the morning and dip for smelt in the afternoon.

Her father made a dip net that had a rectangle frame with a long curved handle about 3 or 4 feet in length.

A fishing net, having a long tail, was attached to the frame.

One would hold on to the curved handle with one hand and the other hand would encircle the tail of the net, much like you would hold a shovel.

Then as the wave approached with the glittering smelt, you would put the frame into the wave like dipping a spoon into a bowl of soup.

As you continued to follow through with a lifting motion of this huge spoon, the water drained through the net and the smelt remained flipping wildly about in the enclosure of the net.

You had to quickly let go of the tail of the net so that gravity would pull the smelt down into the bottom of the net.

Once again you would grasp the bottom third of the net with your hand between the smelt and the wide mouth of the dripping frame so you were ready to go for another wave without losing what you had in your net.

Once the net was about half full, you emptied the smelt into the pail that was sitting on the beach away from the waves.

Lund said, “As children, it was our job to take the pail down to the edge of the water to meet Dad so he could empty his net quickly and waste no time in getting his net ready for more fish.

“So then we would haul the bucket of smelt back up to safer ground while waiting for Dad’s next call for the bucket.”

Once they were home at Clallam Bay, it was “all hands on deck” as the razor clams and smelt needed cleaning and gutting.

Canned smelt, clams

The Whitneys canned the smelt and clams.

Lila Pinord remembered her dad using huge nets fastened to bent poles to dip for the tiny smelt.

Paul Lotzgesell wrote, “Boy, that sure looks like some hardy souls out ‘smelt dipping’ on one of the West End beaches. … We kids sure enjoyed some fun times.”

Nellie Ratliff wrote that they were smelting with a dip net, but she wasn’t sure where the photo was taken.

Gloria and Joe Tweter of Sequim commented that the people were smelt fishing, using the old-fashioned homemade smelt nets.

They said they still have one of the nets.

Ron and Joeen Priest went smelting until they could not get up Trail 4 anymore.

Priest remembered an old local Indian and his grandson renting smelt nets and they charged $2 a tide.

They sat on the big rock in the foreground of the photo.

Years later, when the Priests went back, they spotted the grandson renting nets.

His grandfather had died but the grandson continued on with the custom.

George Williams, Wayne King, John Hubbard, Stan Fouts, Joan Gill and Judy Bickford all had memories of smelting with their families.

King’s dad made his own smelt nets from vine maple and small netting.

Bickford remembered how much fun it was standing barefooted in the surf and having the smelt tickle your toes as they came ashore.

Lonnie Archibald wrote that the night smelt had a superior taste over the day smelt.

He said, “Smelting at times can be somewhat disappointing as they don’t always show up to the party.”

Joe Searight Jr. and Barbara Sands Sparks and their families often went smelting at Kalaloch.

The smelt were good eating and even better shrimp bait.

Sparks and her family started smelting and digging for razor clams in about 1974.

There were always plenty of clams and smelt to put up.

Diana Schildknecht wrote that she and her family often went to Kalaloch and fished for both day and night smelt.

She said the picture just happened to jog the smelting memory that she hadn’t had for many years.

Janet Lamont wrote that when they were camping at Kalaloch one time in the 1950s, a nearby camper brought them a bucket of freshly caught smelt.

Her family had never seen such fish and did not know how to prepare them, but the kind neighbor showed them how and after that, they came smelting themselves.

Rich Taylor said he remembered watching the smelters in Charleston, Ore., when he was a kid.

His family often brought a couple of buckets full and fried them like trout.

Jennifer Taylor wrote that on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska last summer they were using sweeping big nets in the water and catching salmon swimming close to the shore.

Dip smelting is still a popular sport at the ocean beaches, although the nets are much more modern.


Alice Alexander is a Clallam County historian, author, and a descendent of an Elwha Valley pioneer family. She is a recipient of a 2014 Clallam County Heritage Award. She can be reached at [email protected].

Alice’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month, alternating with Linnea Patrick’s Jefferson County history column on the third Sunday of the month.

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