MATT SCHUBERT’S OUTDOORS: Size doesn’t matter

SMALL FISH NEED not be bait.

Oh yes, they can make a meal fit for men (and women) . . . just as long as you catch enough of them.

One particularly puny target for North Olympic Peninsula piscators should start balling up off beaches anytime now — surf smelt.

Little fish need love, too, and surf smelt spawning season tends to hit its peak in the summer (most particularly by mid August).

That give anglers armed with dip nets — either the long-handled aluminum variety or maple wood frames with netting — the opportunity to scoop a few out of the water during slack high tides.

“Smelt are funny birds,” Bob Gooding of Olympic Sporting Goods (360-374-6330) in Forks said.

“You go down [to the beach] one day and get 900 tons, and you go the next day and not get one.”

The latter seems to be more of the case recently.

Traditional surf smelt hotspots on the coast, such as Kalaloch (No. 4 and 6), Ruby and Rialto beaches, haven’t produced much positive feedback so far this summer.

“There ain’t more than 10 sea gulls [down at Kalaloch],” Gooding said. “If there’s smelt around, there would be sea gulls.

“I usually hear when people are getting them, and I haven’t heard anything. So that tells me they aren’t getting any, or if they are, they aren’t getting many.”

Birdie James of Olympic National Park’s Kalaloch Ranger Station hasn’t heard word one about smelt either. She, too, has noticed a lack of feeding shorebirds this summer.

That could change quickly in the coming weeks, however.

Smelt tend to spawn at beaches that have a nice mix of pea gravel and course sand, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Aside from Pacific coast beaches, other beaches on the Peninsula known to produce smelt include areas near the Twin and Lyre rivers, Dungeness Bay, Point Wilson and Old Fort Townsend.

The best thing to do is keep on eye on the birds.

Since they often follow the bait, their presence just might signal the arrival of surf smelt (distinguished from other forage fish by their adipose fins).

“What you do is you’re on the beach, and you’ll watch when the sea gulls start feeding on them in surf,” longtime surf smelter Lonnie Archibald said last summer.

“They will be hitting the water, and then the seals will come in and they will be feeding right in the breaks, and you know [the smelt] are there.”

A dip netter might wade out into water as high as their waist to get into the fish.

It’s best to hit the beach at high tide. If that comes right at dusk, all the better, Gooding said.

“Run out there with a net, and when the wave is coming in, dip it in there,” he said. “You’re up your butt with saltwater and there’s either one, none or a bunch in that net.

“Typically, if it’s decent you’ll get between 6 and 20 in a dip. I’ve had none in a net a bunch of times, and I’ve had 50 pounds.”

Of course, that’s when the real fun begins. For each one of those fish needs to be cleaned (unless you don’t mind eating tiny fish guts).

Smelt dip netting on the coast is open year-round. The daily limit is 10 pounds.

Dip nets can only be used from 8 a.m. on Fridays through 8 a.m. on Wednesdays inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet. Hood Canal is closed to smelt fishing.

For more information on smelt, visit


Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column regularly appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at