Herring In Sausalito
Drove through Sausalito and the news there is that the herring are in major in-shore spawning mode. A single throw of a net anywhere from Yellow Bluff past the seal sculpture along Alexander to Spinnaker, will net you 10-30 pounds of herring (this was the state of things on Wednesday 01/27/10). They haven't reached the inner harbor yet... but they will in the next few days.
I'm thinking I probably need to lay off the herring or I should probably rename this blog "The Herring-Head News."
First Off, I'd Like To Thank The Academy...
Okay. Wow. Those last few posts are a tough act to follow. 3,000 hits in five days. Listen folks. Just to be clear, I have neither the time nor the energy to make a movie every three days, in fact I'll be lucky if I do it once a month. So don't get used to it.
Now... let's see... covered the herring scene about as exhaustively as it can be covered. Nothing really happening by way of sturgeon... though predictably, they ran in the south bay about four days after that big spawn. Yada yada... time to move on to something else...
I guess the next thing I have to look forward to is night smelt. You think I'm a tad over obsessed with the herring? Just wait till the night smelt start running. Jeez Louise, I love those little guys. So much fun. So tasty. Unfortunately, I have only rarely succeeded in getting anyone to accompany me on my night smelt outings--and those that come with me, never seem to want to do it more than once. It's a cold, dark, spooky, semi-dangerous activity--and if they aren't running thick, you gotta work your butt off. Not really what most of my friends think of as a fun evening, per se. Plus which with nighties, there are no guarantees. You can fish the quarter moons, you can fish the optimal time window, (1-2 hours after max high tide, at dusk), you can check that the sand grains are the perfect size etc, etc. You can make sure everything is perfect and still you dip for three hours and catch absolutely nothing. "That's why they call it fishing, not catching!" Yells someone in the cheap seats (is that you Champion?) Having said all this I should add there is one sure fire indication that night smelt are present: harbor seals in the surf.
Anyway, night smelt fishing last year was for the most part a frozen and lonely endeavor. Walking the beaches cold as a well digger's ass, all alone, like Ishi the last Yahi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishi)
Not sure if anyone realizes how insane I am with this business. I mean I'm three sheets to the wind, I'm playin' with 47 cards in my deck, my driveway does not even make it to the curb--let alone the street. For example: how many night smelt dippers out there actually go to the trouble of engraving strange pseudo Amerindian designs on their A-frames? Huh? How many?
Someone last year saw this and pointed out that I must have too much time on my hands. What with two bands, my 500 page unfinished gladiator novel, (the funny thing is everyone thinks I'm joking about my gladiator novel), my strange corduroy clad comedy troupe, (http://www.armchairgeographers.com/) my unfinished puppet projects, working full time and night school. Yeah. Too much time on my hands, that must be it.
Night Smelt 101
I think I'm going to back up a little... with night smelt approaching I might as well do a proper tribute to one of my favorite fishies.
For those of you who are experienced "night fish," dippers and "day fish" netters, I offer you this photograph that you might occupy yourself while everyone else is reading my night smelt primer... (sorry, ahead of time, to the Norcal guy whose girlfriend this is, we only like the picture for her obvious technique)
Now that I've distracted all the experts I want to state very clearly that night smelt (and day smelt) are not related to jacksmelt. Did everyone get that? Thing is, you have to get jacksmelt completely out of your mind before you can fully embrace the osmerids or "true smelts." A jack smelt is in the family Atherinidae, (as are grunion and top smelt), meaning it is closer to a flying fish than a "true smelt." It is a notoriously wormy fish whose meat has a tendency to be both fishy and mealy. Cleaning a jacksmelt is a horrifying and violent activity--black gunk dripping
Jack Smelt: throw 'em back
out of their guts, scales flying everywhere, worms crawling around. Doubtless three days after having cleaned a bucket of these terrible fish, you will find dried scales stuck to the back of your neck, or in your hair, or hardened into a crust on the side of your shoe. I'm just saying... Jack smelt for my money are a dirty, messy, pain in the butt. Throw 'em back or use 'em for bait--I've seen the worms... I've tasted the meat... with it's nasty low tide effervescence! I know everybody's grandmother has some secret way of steaming jacksmelt into palatability. I'm just saying... no way man. Not me. Never again. That and leopard shark ceviche--been there done that.
Also, on a professional level, I see more jack smelt than any other species of fish. I've measured and weighed at least 10,000 of these over the years, and frankly, I'm tired of 'em. Sooooo tired. Kind of like this, (take it Madeleine):
Tired of Jacksmelt
Nothing could be more different from the stinking, scaley, pungeant, worm ridden, mealy fleshed, black-gutted jacksmelt of SF Bay than that golden, unscaled, cucumber-scented, sliver of shimmering, moonbeam joy that is the night smelt, or Spirinctus starksi! The night smelt has a finely nuanced flavor, a light airy texture, no scales to speak of, and is so small you don't even have to clean it. Just bag 'em, rinse 'em and fry 'em hole. Great Neptune! I get hungry just thinking about 'em! In short: anyone who doesn't like night smelt probably doesn't like fish.
And then, beyond the culinary, there's the unique method of catching them. Because they are so small, no sane person would ever throw a casting net on nightsmelt--unless they want to spend the entire evening picking gilled fish out of a net with wet frozen fingers in the dark (which, of course, I have had the immense displeasure of doing). Suffice it to say: casting nets are reserved for the surf (or "day") smelt, Hypomesus pretiosus, a larger, and equally delicious diurnal cousin of the night smelt, which happens to be too big to get "gilled."
I will put together something on surf smelt too in the next few months, but the recreational fishery for them is much better known to most people. Nightsmelt, because of their nocturnal tendencies, yet remain a bit more undergound--although there are a few septuagenarian Portugese men in Halfmoon Bay who would scoff at this. Anyway, where was I... oh right....
Native American Technology
The author's A-frame, pictured next to sousaphone to show scale.
So if you can't throw a casting net on them, how do you catch night smelt? Luckily, our Native American forbears figured this out thousands of years ago. And the technology they invented is still the best thing going. I am speaking of course of the A-frame dip net (see below for some awesome photos I found Online). As far as making the netting itself, if you are able to do it, you are a far better man than I. I ordered my netting from a place called Buck Sport, up in Eureka (I think) for 90 bucks, and it was worth every penny. The actual "frame" I built myself, with two Philipine mahagonny one by threes, joined at the top by a brass strap hinge. I should point out that given the choice between regular old mahagonny and Philipine mahagony I chose the latter. Reasoning that any connection to that storied race of excellent fish killers could only improve my chances of success. To get a sense of how this mighty tool of fish destruction is best utilized see the photo below.
As you can see, the A-frame is dipped in front of the incoming wave. What you can't see is that the smelter shakes the smelt down into the nipple or "sock" of the net, so that he can keep on dipping instead of running to the bucket every time he catches some fish... capiche? Also, the whole point here is that the mesh size on an A-frame is smaller than your standard cast net, therefore the little buggers don't get gilled...
Okay... look, it's three o'clock in the morning... gotta hit the hay or Camilladilla will sue for divorce. More on this smelting biz down the road (whether anyone wants it or not). Oh yeah, did I mention that they smell like cucumber? Well they do.