Smelting in La Conner

1/20/2003

Have the smelt returned to La Conner?

Those in the know say jigging has been good this winter at the quaint waterfront town

Lindsay Smithberg enjoys a late-December day on the La Conner docks, jigging for smelt with her family.

Wayne Kruse Outdoor Writer
Garrett Smithberg, nine years old and bundled against the December chill, was enthusiastically endorsing La Conner smelt jigging. "The last time we came here," he said, arms gesturing wildly, "we hammered 'em. We got 70 smelt."

And 70 smelt is a fine haul indeed, especially when you're nine and out of school for the holidays. But actually, it's not a bad haul for anyone these days, of any age, getting right down to the bottom line.

Garrett, younger sister Lindsay, and father, Michael Smithberg, all of Clinton, on Whidbey Island, were hammering 'em again a couple of weeks ago, jigging off a finger pier near the boat slings, on the north side of the Port of Skagit County's north marina. Dad was so busy unhooking smelt and herring from his kids' jigs, in fact, that he rarely had time to get his own gear in the water. The ratio was running about one smelt for every two or three herring (the latter returned to the water), which most any experienced smelt jigger will tell you is pretty good, and the brother/sister team was bringing in two, three, or even four, fish per "set."

The trio was using what is probably the most popular recreational smelt jigging setup locally: a light, inexpensive, trout rod with spinning reel, and a jig composed of a string of nine (by law) shiny single hooks, with a lead sinker at the bottom. Jigs are available at most tackle shops and marinas around Puget Sound, going for roughly $2 to $5, depending on type and manufacturer. Hooks are usually enhanced with a tiny bead and/or feather attractor.

Many jiggers finish off the setup by sliding a small, brightly-colored steelhead fisherman's bobber, called a Corky, on the line above the jig as an indicator. The bobber dips and vibrates when there are fish on the hooks.

The Smithberg clan, experienced smelters, were also using chum, a substance tossed by the spoonful into the water from time to time, allegedly to attract schools of smelt. Michael Smithberg was using ground hake fish fertilizer from a five-gallon bucket, and the substance has a local history.

"This is what's left of a full bucket I got from the old Moore-Clarke fish processing plant at the south end of town, before they went out of business years ago," he said.

Other jiggers mix their own chum from a wide variety of different substances - such as fish cat food or ground liver, mixed with a carrier such as oatmeal. The jury is still out, however, on the necessity of bothering with chum, and to listen to a group of smelters argue, there may never be a final decision. Some swear by the stuff as crucial, while others say that since smelt are plankton feeders, chumming is a useless exercise.

The actual jigging technique is simple. Toss your rig out a few feet, let it sink three to six feet or so, and jig it back to you with short, upward sweeps of the rod. Since smelt are attracted to the glittering lures, but probably don't actually hook themselves by biting, a jigging motion is necessary to snag the fish. Most jiggers also say that the top hour or two of the incoming tide, and particularly high slack, is the time to be on the water.

No license is required to jig for smelt, the limit is 10 pounds per person (about one-third of a five-gallon bucket) and jigging is open year-around, seven days a week.

La Conner was at one time THE place to go for a bucket of the tasty little fish, and the docks along the Swinomish Channel were crowded with weekend jiggers from October through March. The town even capitalized on the resource with an annual Smelt Derby, held in February. The popular fishery died a mysterious death in the 1980s, however, and no one seems to know exactly why.

"The most widely circulated reason," says Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife forage fish manager Dan Pentilla, at the agency's La Conner office, "is that the Moore-Clarke plant quit pumping fish processing effluent into the channel about that time, as it either responded to new regulations or closed shop completely, depending on who you're talking to. The other is that, also in that time frame, the channel was dredged by the Corps of Engineers. I don't think I buy either of those explanations, but I don't have a better one to offer."

Regardless, an excellent thing is happening, maybe. Longtime smelters, and admirers of the quaint little waterfront town, are starting to say - softly, softly - that the smelt could be returning to the area. Word of mouth says jigging has been pretty good at times this winter, but inside the marinas, particularly the north, rather than along the channel proper.

Certainly, mounting a smelt expedition to any of Puget Sound's jigging or raking areas is a gamble, with fish coming and going in no discernable pattern, but there seems to be enough around to make the short drive to La Conner worth a try, through about the middle of February. Besides, even if you miss the smelt, the attractive town, with its shops and restaurants, is well worth exploring.

"There have been a lot of days this winter when there were 20 people or more on H dock, jigging," says Rod Crawford at Boater's Discount Center, between La Conner's north and south marinas. The H dock, a popular, easily accessible spot, is on the south side of the north marina, just north of Crawford's business.

To get there, take the Conway exit from I-5 (south of Mount Vernon), cross the South Fork Skagit River and drive down Fir Island, cross the North Fork, and follow the signs to La Conner. Drive into town on Morris Street, toward the water, and turn right (north) on Third Street. Drive north about three blocks, past the soccer fields on the right, and watch for Mo's Restaurant on the left. The boater's supply store, which also sells smelt jigs and other tackle, is behind the restaurant; phone number 1-800-488-0245, or 360-466-3540.

The smelt jigging area which assumed the king's mantle when the La Conner fishery went belly-up, Cornet Bay, is still producing well and may yet be a better bet, albeit a longer drive, than La Conner. On the same day that the Smithberg family was filling a bucket, a handful of jiggers on the Cornet Bay docks were also finding at least fair numbers of smelt. WDFW checks a couple of days before Christmas at Cornet Bay showed four jiggers with 85 smelt. Another check, however, a couple of days after Christmas, showed six jiggers in the same area with only four smelt. And Michael Smithberg, from his home in Clinton, has to drive right past Cornet Bay on the north end of Whidbey Island, to get to La Conner. Make sense?

"I've never done very well at Cornet Bay," Smithberg says, "but I've usually managed to find at least a few smelt at La Conner. Maybe it's just coincidence or something."

Several of the piers at Cornet Bay are a part of Deception Pass State Park and are thus public. It's a very pretty area, there's plenty of parking available, and the docks are over deep enough water to offer good crabbing when the season is open.

Deception Pass Marina, right on Cornet Bay, sells jigs and is available for information at 360-675-5411. To get there, take SR 20 west toward Anacortes from the Burlington exit off I-5, cross the Swinomish Channel, pass the car dealerships on top of the hill, and turn south (left) at the second stop light, toward Whidbey Island and Oak Harbor. Drive south past Lake Campbell, cross the Deception Pass bridge, and turn left on the Cornet Bay Road, directly across the highway from the entrance to the state park. The public docks are beyond the private and commercial piers, at the far east side of the business complex. If it seems that smelt, like gold, are where you find 'em, you're right on the money. Biologist Pentilla says that some surf smelt populations (they're a different species than the eulachon found in the Columbia River and its tributaries) in Puget Sound spawn in the winter/fall, and some in spring/summer.

"Spawning occurs in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, northern Saratoga Passage, Port Susan, Birch Point, and Cherry Point, from May to October," he says, "while it takes place from September to March in Hood Canal and south Sound. To further confuse the issue, some areas, including the San Juan Islands and the Fidalgo Bay/March Point area, support populations which spawn, off and on, year-around."

So the smelt being harvested at La Conner aren't spawning, he says, but are found in two sizes - small, 3- to 5-inch sexually immature, feeding, fish, and larger, also feeding, smelt recovering from a summer spawn. Recreational jigging developed at places like La Conner and Cornet Bay because of a strong winter feeding presence, naturally enough, and the fish are gone from there to spawning grounds north and south, during the spring and summer months. That's probably also true of the smelt being jigged currently at the mouth of the Snohomish, on the downtown Everett waterfront, Pentilla says. Many of those fish spawn during the summer along the Camano Island shoreline.

An interesting example of recreational harvest of spawning smelt, by beach "raking," is currently underway on March Point, near Anacortes, Pentilla says, in an area where smelt spawn year-around.

"The new security precautions around the refineries has closed the best beaches to the public," he says, "but raking is still taking place, off and on, east of the security zone. Remember that raking, unlike jigging, is closed throughout the Sound from 8 a.m. Wednesday to 8 a.m. Friday."