Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nightfish, and surf-fish.

One of the things that I like about this blog is we don't stick to the subject. But, we go where our hearts and minds take us. So I'll jump in here and take us surf-fishing.

Some of you may be confusing the Columbia River Candle Fish with the Usal Night Fish. When my wife and I first started dating and she starting acting like she was interested in the things that I did, I invited her to go night fishing in Usal. She wanted to know if it was anything like “snipe hunting”. I assured her that there was nothing “irregular about it”, and it was real fishing for real fish. She still looked a little suspicious but she consented to go night fishing with me. Her guard came down a little bit after I hand made her a dip net.

A "night fish net" has smaller woven netting because the night fish are only four inches long. When a wave hits it, it pushes you back a lot harder than a “day fish net”, with larger netting, would. Night fishing is pretty much fish by brail, because they only run at night. It's dark and lonely fishing at night. Nobody turns on a light unless you have to, because people want to keep their eyes accustomed to the dark. It was usually quite surprising to see how many people were out in the surf fishing next to you when somebody turned a light on. Everybody would look up and down the beach to see who was there and holler to “turn the light off!”

Day fishing was simply called surf-fishing. Surf-fish were 6-8 inches long. Usually you would catch about a dozen fish to a dip, when they were running. If you caught fish in a incoming dip you would turn around and back-dip the wave as it washed back to sea. You can see the fish in the back wash and you try to dip in front of the biggest school of fish. The fish try to avoid the net, and a lot will swim around it. On a good day you could catch a five gallon bucket full, which is about all that you and your family can clean and eat. Often a person would take a batch of fish to a friend or a neighbor. It was quite common to share your bounty. Most end up cleaned and frozen in water filled tupper-ware.

Now, I don’t know what the heck a hooligan fish, or a Columbia River fish, or a candle fish is. The small fish that we called “night fish” were about four inches long and the spawned in the surf at the mouth of a creek. They didn’t got up the creek, they didn’t leave the ocean, other that the ones that got caught. The were oily, and some people did call them candle fish.

I would clean them with a pair of scissors. One snip behind the head, just through the backbone, then flip the head away and the guts would pull out with it. Then they would be rinsed and dried on a towel. Then dipped in lemon juice, just enough to wet them, then dumped in a plastic bag full of flour seasoned with salt and pepper, shaken and removed from the bag when fully floured, fried in deep hot oil, and drained on a paper towel. They were eaten just as soon as they cooled off enough to eat. One person usually keeps the fish frying in batches and puts them on the table hot. You eat the whole fish, bones, tail, and all. The bones are too small to notice. Some like to add more lemon, others are too busy eating to put lemon on them. Yes, they are good!

Day-fish, or surf-fish are prepared the same way, only they are hand split down the back bone after cooking and the bones are removed in one whole piece. They are not oily at all, and just thinking about them is making my mouth water right now. I like surf-fish better than trout.

Both fish are good cleaned as noted above, and laid on wire racks in the smoke house, and smoked for two or three days with a very mild smoke, until they are cooked and dried. They are died-and-gone-to-heaven good!

I don’t think that I ever went surf-fishing without somebody quite a bit smarter than me telling me that, “those things are really smelt. In Los Angeles they call them grunion. Only grunion are different, and you have to catch them by hand.”

Now… To get to the thing that is really bothering me. I spent the last two days trying to figure out if what I call “night-fish” are what other people call “hooligan” or “eulachon” that swim up the Columbia River to spawn and die. I don’t think that they are, but I don’t know. The ones that I caught never left the ocean to spawn, they spawn right in the surf. I know that there must be somebody out there that is smarter than me (there always is!) that knows if they are the same critter….


Anonymous said...

Ernie, everybody that writes here is smarter than me but, I am first in line with my question about the gophers. I never got anything better than Juicy Fruit Gum and I don't chew.I don't need an answer now cuz me and Victor worked it out.
Night fish are smaller than surf fish and run at night.
They are really good smoked and use popcorn salt. Great with cold beer.


Ernie Branscomb said...

I just knew that it was less complicated than is was bein' made out to be!

Fred said...

Yep. I been grunion hunting a couple times when I live in Southern CA. The fish come on to the beach at night by the millions. The females wiggle their tails deep into the sand and the males circle around them and inseminate them.

You can only take them by hand and there's no limit.

Both times we went out we came back with shopping bags full, which was a bit of a waste as I got tired of eating them after a day to two. I ended up feeding most of them to my dog.

Humboldt said...

I've been chomping at the bit for the surf fish to start running. My favorite place is up around the lagoons and the mouth of Redwood Creek. Love them just rolled in flour and fried in some Nucoa margarine or smoked. They should start running just about any time now. Can't wait!

kymk said...

We always called them night fish and surf fish but someone smarter than me said we ought to call one or the other smelt. I forget which one.

I wrote a little story about them a long time ago. The best part is a photo I stole of someone surf fishing.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thank-you for the story! I've read it before, but enjoyed re-reading it. Here's an easy link to click on.= The Smell of Smelt


Ekovox said...

Surf Fish....what a waste of time for my mom to try to feed a family of 6 on them. We used to trade our coast cousins for inland produce. It wasn't a fair trade. My mom politely took the surf fish and my dad used them for fertilizer.

Robin Shelley said...

Oh, man! I would love to have a batch of surfish! Fry 'em up & eat 'em just like French fries! Even good cold for breakfast in the morning. I'll give out my address to anybody who's coming through Brookings with an extra 5-gallon bucketful!
For some reason, I thought smelt were fresh water fishes. Dang it, Ernie! I just came on here to see if all the bugs are gone & now look what you've started!

Anonymous said...

OMG Eko.... our families caught surf fish and night fish by the gunny sacks full my entire childhood. We ate fish until they literally came out of our ears. Then, our little grandmother got into bottom fishing and came home with the back of her pickup full of iced fish to be cared for. Swore I'd never eat another fish once I left home...What I'd give for just a gallon bag of surf fish now.....yummmmmmmy!!! Dad always smoked what we didn't eat fresh. He smoked them in a wire framed box held up by sawhorses, over a small fire in our yard; same box as for venison jerkey. I can't begin to imagine how many people my mother fried surf fish for at one meal, and cooking them on the beach was best of all.


Jerry99336 said...

Hi Ernie, my g-father used to fish for candle fish on the Klamath river back in the '50's. They used a round net, 4' dia, attached to a wooden hoop. It was attached to poles ~ 8' long. They'd dip for the fish from the boat. Don't know if the candle fish run even still exists.... But, the whole thing took place at night. Oh, and one other important thing, they'd used a lantern to draw the fish toward the worked and lots were brought home to be smoked.... They weren't like the Columbia River smelt they say, but specific to the Klamath river...

Jerry Fisher
Kennewick, Wa
formerly, Arcata, Ca

Robin Shelley said...

Jerry, maybe Ernie will activate this link for you to see a little newspaper article about the candle fish in the Klamath, etc.
Thanks, Ernie!

Ernie Branscomb said...

Robin's Nightfish Link

olmanriver said...

"In describing a trip along the coast north of San Francisco in 1861, J. Ross Browne remarked that near the mouth of Ten Mile River 'Along the beach, and at intervals of every few hundred yards, groups of Indians were engaged in catching and packing away in baskets a small species of fish resembling the sardine, which at particular periods during the summer, abound in vast numbers on this part of the coast. The Indians catch them by means of a small hand-net, which they use in a peculiar and very dexterous manner. Holding the pole of the net in both hands, they watch the breakers as they roll in, and when they see one of suitable force and magnitude coming, they plunge in the surf and turn their backs upon the incoming wave. The moment it breaks they set their nets down firmly in the sand, and the fish are forced into it by the velocity of the receding current. I have seen them take out at a single catch an ordinary-sized bucket full.
The old women of the different tribes take away the fish in large baskets to the rancherias, where they are dried in the sun or used as neccessity requires. The coast Indians carry on a small trade with those of the mountains and interior valleys, in fish, dried abalone, mussels, shells, and various marine productions, in exchange for which they receive dried berries, acorns, and different kinds of nuts and roots. Of late years, however, they have been harshly dealt with by the settlers that it is with great difficulty they can procure a scanty subsistence. They are in constant dread of being murdered, and even in the vicinity of the reservations have a startled and distrustful look whenever they are approached by white men.' Harper's Monthly Magazine, 315, August 1861"

olmanrifer said...

"....the Surf Smelt (Hyomesus pretiosus) come in near shore to spawn in the surf during the day. Night Smelt (Spirinchus starksi) come in to spawn at night. These smelt 6 to 10 inches in length, are called surf fish and night fish by the sportsmen who take them in nets as they approach the beach to spawn."

The Westport Union Landing website had this.

Matthew Sheldon said...


Your story about night fish and day fish are so accurate. My Dad and I used to go night fishing at Usal and also at Wolf Creek, which if memory serves me, was a few miles north of Usal Beach. We went day fishing up and down the Mendocino Coast, especially at Wages Creek,Juan Creek and DeHaven Creek. One night my Dad literally saved my life when I was 14 years old, in 1970. We were camped at Wolf Creek. It is very isolated there. We were night fishing and I was getting a large run of night fish and my Dad's net was empty. So he put his net at the top of the beach and came back to help my scrawny 14 year old butt. All I remember next was a solid wall of black. A sleeper wave of course. My Dad grabbed my collar with one hand and dug into the sand with the other hand, as he kept yelling "Let of the net!" I let go and he drug me out and we got back onto our feet. Then the other net knocked us down and he drug me out again. As you know, once you enter the water above your head at these places, no one can swim back to shore. We got back to our camp site, we changed into dry clothes and he pretty much downed his gallon jug of Gallo wine. 7 years later, I was in the Marines. I was in excellent physical shape, 6-3, 190 lbs. and a water/survival, combat swimming instructor in the Marine Corps. I was home on leave, after being overseas for 2 years. My Dad and I went night fishing at Usal. Long story short, I saved his life this time. We were at the mouth of the creek and the water and the creek was filling up fast. The further inland we went, the deeper it got. I was wearing my primo wet suit and he was wearing waders. I scrambled up the sandy bank and reached down and pulled him up. I remember catching day fish and filling a 5 gallon bucket, which 25 pounds was the limit. I also learned that if I hung out with any Pomo Indians who were surf fishing , it was best to watch and listen to them. They have a natural ability to see the fish while they are coming in.