Smelt are small, six- to 10-inch-long, salmon-like fish that migrate annually up the rivers of Northwest Alaska to spawn, including the Buckland River. Smelt usually start their journey about a week after the river ice breaks up.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines smelt as, "Any of various small silvery marine and freshwater food fishes of the family Osmeridae found in cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere, especially . . . North America."
Some villagers say they can actually smell the fish coming. Some say they can feel it in their bones. When the finally do arrive, the seagulls are swimming in the river while the smelt jump along each side of the river. As the fish arrive, the whole town goes into a frenzy.
On their VHF radio, the locals yell, "The smelts are here! The smelts are here!" The beaches soon are lined with people wearing rubber boots or hip waders. They are either holding fast to their fishing poles or dipping or casting nets. They fill tub after tub with fish. They fill buckets. They fill plastic trash bags with the tiny silver fish. Some villagers who didn't get ready in time can be found at the local store rushing to buy supplies.
I first learned how to fish for smelt by watching others. One method is to use a dip net. A dip net is a large, spoon-shaped net attached to a five- to 10-foot pole. First, dip the net into the shallow water, pushing against the school of moving smelt. Growing up, I loved using the dip net because I could catch a bucketful of smelt in just one dip.
A "cast net" is another popular smelting tool in Buckland. A cast net is a circular net with weights along the edges to help the net sink quickly into the water. It is thrown five feet or more into the air, circling the water. When tossed correctly, a smelter can trap a tub or more in one cast. That is why so many smelters favor the cast net.
Many children in Buckland use fishing poles to catch smelt. Kids who cannot afford a fishing pole instead just tie a hook to fishing line. To catch smelt with a fishing pole, first cast out the line over the river as far as possible. Then reel in the line fast, with quick tugs to the side. The goal, of course, is to snag a fish. If you're lucky, two of the smelt will get on the hook. Children's faces light up when they catch a smelt. My own children use fishing poles. That keeps them busy while I dip or cast a net.
In our family, we have a tradition of gathering with my dad's brothers and sisters and their families every year when the smelt are running. We organize our smelting tools: a 30- to 40-foot mesh sane net, dip nets, fish hooks, tubs, buckets, plastic storage bags, rubber boots, a boiling pot, seal oil and manpower. We travel by boat to my father's Native allotment on a sandy beach a few bends down the river from Buckland.
The net is neatly folded on the boat for easy unloading. Two strong men stay in the boat, one to drive and the other to hold the net. In reality, the boat does the holding and the second guy makes sure the net doesn't get tangled or caught on the boat. On the beach, five to 10 people hold the other end of the net and follow along with the boat. We then slowly meet together on the other side of the beach, pulling in the net.
"Pull here!" yell the experienced smelters. "Pull there! Bring in here! Put there!"
The kids scurry up, dragging the tubs and dip nets. We use the dip nets to scoop the fish into the tubs. We then dump the smelt on the rocky parts of the beach. We try to avoid drying the fish on the sand because once it dries, it's like eating fishy sand paper.
In a good run, we can catch up to three to four tubs of fish. My mother and the kids gather firewood to keep warm and to cook dinner. When we catch enough for our families, we celebrate with dinner of fresh, boiled smelt, seal oil and other native foods.
Then the real labor begins. To dry the smelt, we lay them an inch apart, side-by-side, row-by-row, to avoid bugs laying eggs. I once had to redo a tub of fish because they were overlapping one another. As we lay the fish, the men gather extra clothing to make scarecrows. They make the scarecrows standing and holding sticks, waving towards the river at passing travelers.
They also spread out string about one foot above the fish. They also tie trash bags to flap in the wind to keep the birds from stealing our catch. We then load up the boat with the fish we don't want dried. Back in the village, we will freeze the un-dried smelt to preserve for the winter months.
We leave the smelt at fish camp to dry. We will return a few days later to flip the smelt so the other side of each fish can dry. We also reinforce the scarecrows to make sure they can withstand wind or rainy weather a few more days. When the smelt are completely dry, we fill burlap bags with the dried smelt and store in a cool, dry place.
My parents have small cache outside of their house in Buckland where they store all their dried preserved foods such as dried caribou, salmon, moose, trout, smelts, and many other foods prepared throughout each summer.
Smelting is one of my favorite annual spring activities. One year we caught so many smelt, we cruised home on the river in the dark.
Ethel Weber is a NANA resource specialist in Buckland with four school-age children. She wrote this story in a distance education class delivered from the University of Alaska's Chukchi College, a Kotzebue-based UA satellite campus. This piece is distributed by Chukchi News and Information Service, a cultural journalism project whose honors include a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the Alaska Press Club's Public Service Award.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing