The wind was gusting to 20 knots, there was an 8′ northwesterly swell with a 4′ wind chop. We found ourselves on California’s north coast ready to go salmon fishing and the entire fleet was stuck in the harbor. Occasionally the conditions will get you. Since we couldn’t chase the big fish, we decided to go after the little ones.There are two types of smelt, more commonly known as surf fish, which inhabit Northern California waters. Nightfish, about 3″ long, run on sandy beaches to spawn at high tide when the moon is full or near full. Dayfish, about 6″ long, come in daily with the high tide. Both are caught with various types of hand held or cast nets.
The attraction of surf fishing, is the action of playing in the surf, the incredible display of wildlife put on by mother nature, and of course the feast that follows the fishing.
We arrived at the sandy cove about an hour before high tide, opened a cold one, then sat down to watch the show. The sea lions were basking in the sun where a large creek discharged into the pacific. An osprey circled overhead while the pelicans patiently waited for lunch on the rocks surrounding the cove. Looking out to sea we noticed a flock of gulls and loons floating on the surface about a 1/2 mile out. Slowly these birds came closer to shore following the surf fish.
When the fish got to within a few hundred yards of shore, the sea lions woke up and slid into the water. As the fish moved closer to shore, the cormorants joined the fray followed by the pelicans. When the pelicans start diving, it’s time to get into your waders or wetsuit and start catching fish.
By now the action is reminiscent of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. You can see the schools of dayfish in the surf surrounded by all this frantic activity.
This type of fishing is best done with a couple of friends. The trick to preserving dayfish is to get them on ice immediately. Two of us would fish while the third would wash the fish and put them on ice.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I can assure you when you have a bucket of fish 100 yards down the beach from your ice chest it can get interesting. Another duty of the shoreman is to keep you supplied with rocks so that you can defend your turf from the sea lions. And of course you have to keep the birds out of your bucket!
We had our 25 lb. limits in about two hours. And it sure beats spending the day shopping at the local tourist hamlet. The best ways to prepare dayfish are to simply bread them and deepfry in a shallow pan, or you can slow cook them in a covered barbecue or smoke them. Just cook a lot of them. The last time I served them at a party, the average consumption was 12 fish. You do need to clean dayfish as opposed to nightfish, which are served best deep fried whole.