My dad rolled the small fish in egg and then flour, and set it beside three other smelt in the hot frying pan. He stood over the stove, explaining how he used to catch smelt for his friends, a local Japanese family, the Uratas. He wanted me to try the fish but he didn’t know what kind of smelt they were. He supposed they wintered in the harbor and all he knew was: they weren’t hooligan.
At Mickey’s Fishcamp, where I live and write, we’re all about a sustainable subsistence life. Those are western catch-words for what my daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’, a Tlingit language teacher and traditional foods expert, calls haa atxaayí haa kusteeyíx sitee: our food is our way of life.
I’m learning food gathering and teaching it to my children and grandchildren and I wanted to know about this bright little fish. I’m used to seeing smelt. Those small silver glints beneath green harbor water have been a memory flashing throughout my whole life. I’d assumed the fish were herring, though.
I stacked a few plates on the counter and went outside on the porch. In the bucket, a couple dozen fish glinted. My husband had set out a herring net overnight to soak in the harbor, hoping to catch herring, but ended up with a small bucket of smelt. “What kind of smelt?” I wondered. I tapped the search engine on my iPhone, looking for information on various smelts in Southeast Alaska. Rainbow smelt are about eight inches long and have an olive green spine. They have bright colored scales and a small adipose fin. They are distinguished from other smelt because they have a protruding jaw with teeth on the tongue. Really? I picked one up and opened its mouth and scraped my fingertip over the tongue. Teeth! I brought the fish inside to show my dad. I held the fish, mouth gaping. “It’s a rainbow smelt. Feel the tongue.” He stuck his finger inside the smelt’s mouth and agreed.
The smell of hot oil and fish filled the small kitchen. My dad flipped the smelt. “You can tell when hooligan or smelt have arrived in the spring because the birds, western grebes, sit in a long string out in the strait feeding on them.
“They’ve done that as long as I can remember,” he said. He also said he once caught a king salmon with a rainbow smelt in its stomach. He had never seen a king that had eaten one, but the smelt were in the harbor then. “I knew where that king had been.”
When it comes to fish and fishing, my dad is the king salmon expert. We sometimes refer to him jokingly as “the king of kings.” He said when the hooligan are schooling up outside in deeper water, getting ready for the ice to come out of the Stikine River, that’s when the rainbow smelt show up in the harbor. Other information on rainbow smelt in Southeast Alaska is slim. I did learn the fish are anadromous, a word I love because it sounds like an erotic star map; it means the fish live part time in the ocean and part of their lives in fresh water. Rainbow smelt live about two to six years in the ocean before returning home to fresh water streams to spawn. Hatchlings eat crustaceans, other tiny creatures’ eggs, water fleas, zooplankton, and algae. Adult rainbow smelt subsist on small shrimp, squid, sea worms, crabs, crustaceans, and other small fish, including their own species: they’re cannibals.
My dad turned off the burner and declared lunch was ready. I put two smelt on my plate and sat down at the table. “Turn the fish like this,” my dad instructed me, turning the fish on its belly, backbone upward. “Press down with your fork.” I did as he said and the meat on each side separated. I lifted the tiny backbone and set it aside. The white flesh was light and delicious.
One of the reasons I like living at the fishcamp is I get to figure things out. I learned rainbow smelt have a superpower called macromolecular antifreeze, accumulating glycerol and antifreeze proteins. Frogs have similar capabilities, but unlike frogs, rainbow smelt use their abilities in the ocean, overwintering in estuaries beneath the ice. Amazingly, rainbow smelt haven’t been widely studied in Southeast Alaska. Later, I asked my older sister why we didn’t eat rainbow smelt as kids. She told me we were king salmon snobs. Meaning, since we were a family who fished for our food, in addition to fishing commercially, we had all the fish we could eat. Plus, my grandfather often supplied us with hooligan, the well-known smelt.
My family now knows what rainbow smelt are and what they taste like, yet we still have questions, so I asked Wrangellites on our Community Board, a local Facebook page, about rainbow smelt. A Tlingit fisherman said they’re a winter fish, and he looked forward to eating them when other fish aren’t available. Why didn’t I know this? Like most Wrangellites, we’re hooligan connoisseurs, but rainbow smelt? Half the respondents didn’t know what rainbow smelt were, and if they did, they didn’t harvest them regularly. Some confused rainbow smelt with hooligan (saak, eulachon, or candlefish), another type of smelt. Several people harvested rainbow smelt in the spring. Another fisherman said smoked rainbow smelt was a favorite. To catch them, fishermen used either a herring net or a herring jig.
My dad likes to write information like that in his tide book, keeping notes so he can open the book and say, “Last year we got a bucket of rainbow smelt with a herring net.” He keeps track of the weather and other specifics like tide, water temperature, and even how we prepared the different fish. He remembered harvesting smelt in the late fall and early winter, but we are still learning the rainbow smelt’s ways. Will we find rainbow smelt year round or only in the spring? In which harbors and on which beaches can we fish for them?
Rainbow smelt are sensitive to light, temperature changes, and rapid currents. That explains why they are found in the calm harbors. We’ll keep track of those details. The major threat to the rainbow smelt’s future are us humans. Overharvesting for personal or commercial use can jeopardize the health of this little fish. This year I want to try smoking rainbow smelt, teaching my grandchildren as I learn too. Haa atxaayí haa kusteeyíx sitee, I tell myself. I will teach my grandchildren that phrase and its meaning too. Harvesting the little fish from the sea has become part of our way of life here at the fishcamp.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.