Photo of drawing reproduced from the Journals of Lewis and Clark (Illustration by Meriwether Lewis from American
“This evening we were visited
by Comowool the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women and children of his nation .
. . The Chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin, some
hats, stergeon and a species of small fish which now begin to run, and are
taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us by
means of skimming or scooping nets . . . I find them best when cooked in
Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden
spit without any previous preparation whatever. They are so fat they require
no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever taste,
even more delicate and luscious than the white fish of the lakes which hae
heretofore formed my standaart of excellence among the fishes.”
From the Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (February 25, 1806)
To an old-timer living in the Pacific Northwest, smelt can bring back
memories of glorious fish runs. For many families, annual smelt dipping was
a social and recreational activity, and they came from miles around to net
the smelt for frying and smoking. No one knew actually when the schools of
smelt would come until someone spotted the first fish. When the announcement
was made that "the smelt are running," everyone made a mad dash to the
The smelt runs were so large through the 1930s
and 1940s, that there was the illusion the runs would be annual events. But
the runs started becoming irregular and eventually stopped in some rivers,
especially in the 1990s. Only a few now make the migration up the Columbia
River. No one knows what went wrong, with the smelt runs. Among the possible
reasons for the decline are the warm-water El Nino ocean conditions, water
pollution from pulp mills, and the changes to the river estuary caused by
channel dredging and construction of jetties and dams. The river temperature
at the end of March may have an effect on the timing of migration upstream
to their spawning grounds. A water temperature of approximately 40o
F was found to be necessary to insure upstream migration in the Columbia
River. This spirit of the smelt fever still continues whenever the fish
decide to appear in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
My husband, Donald Stradley, writes about smelt fishing in the 1940s with
his father, Lawrence Stradley, on the Sandy River, a tributary of the
Columbia River near Portland, Oregon:
I remember, as a boy of twelve or thirteen, smelt fishing with my father
on the Sandy River. We fished from a wooden float supported by oil drums
and anchored to the bank where the water ran 10 to 12 feet deep. Large
nets, 2 feet in diameter and up to 4 feet long, attached to a
16-foot-long poles, were dipped downstream to intercept the upstream
migration of these thick schools of silvery fish.
Sometimes the schools were several feet in diameter moving in undulating
fashion through the current, never following the exact same route more
than a few seconds. The trick was to locate the school by the feel of
the fish hitting the steel rim of the net and then rapidly stroking
downstream to intercept as many as possible. On a good dip, as many as
50 pounds of fish could be intercepted, requiring more strength than I
had to bring them to the surface.
Smelt, also called eulachon or oolichan by Native Americans, are small,
silver fish the size of herring (approximately 6 to 10 inches long).
spring they migrate in millions to coastal rivers from the Klamath River in
northern California, north to the Nushagak River in Alaska, and to the
Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. After spawning, most die, their
carcasses decay, and they thus enrich the streams and estuaries. Another
nickname is "candle fish." This nickname comes from the fact that the smelt
are so full of oil that when dried, placed upright, and lit, the fish would
burn from end to end like a candle.
Americans, the return of the eulachon meant the beginning of spring and a
renewed food supply, literally saving lives and earning them the name
"salvation fish" or "savour fish." They were the first fish to arrive in the
river after a long cold winter when most of their stored food supplies had
been depleted. Unlike other fish oils, eulachon lipids are solid at
room temperature, with the color and consistency of butter. These fish are
almost 20 percent oil by weight, allowing a fine grease to be rendered from
their bodies and creating a high-energy food source that could easily be
transported and traded with other tribes farther inland.
The name "Grease
Trail" was given to these travel routes, because the most important trade
item carried over them was the eulachon oil extracted from the tiny fish. In
the 1700s a vast network of ooligan "grease trails" stretched from Alaska to
the Fraser River, even crossing the northern Rockies. These ancient "Grease
Trails" later formed part of the Dalton Trail, a toll road that opened up
the interior of Alaska to prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush from
1897 to 1898.
In 1793, when
Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820) made his famous overland journey to the
Pacific Ocean, he followed an ancient "Grease Trail" from the Upper Fraser
to the Bella Coola. Alexander Mackenzie, considered Canada's Lewis and
Clark, was the first European to cross the Rocky Mountains and view the
western seas from the shores of northwestern North America, preceding the
more widely known Lewis and Clark expedition by 12 years. His journey took
him 72 days and covered over 1,240 miles (2,000 km) of unmapped terrain.
Today parts of the ancient trail form the famous Alaskan Highway.
The term "grease
Trail" does not seem to have been used south of the Canadian border, but
there is evidence that dried ooligan and ooligan oil were key trade items in
the Columbia River trade network. Chinook is a Native American nation of the
Pacific Northwest, which inhabited the lower Columbia River valley in what
is now Washington and Oregon. Chinook comprise the Clatsop, Cathlamet,
Multnomah, Watlala, Clowwewalla, Clackamas, Chilluckittequa, and Wasco
tribes today. The Columbia River tribes used the Chinook Jargon trade
language, which spread the word "ooligan" throughout the Northwest. Those
who spoke Chinookan languages, fifty or more winter villages strung along
both banks of the lowest two hundred miles of the Columbia River plus
twenty-five miles up the Willamette River at the falls and the Clackamas
River, and twenty miles north and south along the Pacific seacoast, for all
those people the river people had no name, indeed hardly more than a memory
that they must be related. David Lewis and Scott Byram in their article
Ourigan - Wealth of the Northwest Coast talks about the ooligan oil:
The Indians of the Northwest were known for their great wealth, and
nutritious ooligan oil was one of their most valued trade goods. Some of
the greatest potlatch ceremonies were ooligan 'grease feasts,' and
ooligan also was a medicine.
Tribal chiefs would hold "grease feast . . . in order to destroy the
prestige of the rival" chiefs. The ooligan grease feast was the most
expensive of all the feast, "at which erormous quantities of fish oil
(made of the oulachon) are consumed and burnt . . . "During a grease
feast, the central fire is built up to the point of scorching the guests
in order for the host to conquer them, and "grease is poured into the
fire so that the blankets of guests get scorched." This serves to raise
the prestige of the host who can afford to give such a feast, expending
enormous quantities of the valued resource. If the rival chief is not
able to respond with a similar potlatch and destroy an equal amount of
property, then his name is "broken" and he suffers a loss of prestige.
American's recipe to render oolichan grease differs slightly from one tribe
to another. The Haisla people of the Kitamaat Village of British Columbia,
have been oolichan fishing for thousands and thousands of years. The
following recipes are from their web site:
Their general recipe is to allow the fish to ripen for approximately two
weeks under evergreen branches, cook the fish in fresh water, and then
skim the oil from the surface of the water. Specific recipes
differ in the dumping and stirring of the fish, straining the carcasses,
placing rocks in the water to reheat the mixture, and filtration
methods. Whatever method used that is unique to the individual
tribe, those involved in making the oolichan grease were, and still are,
proud of the end product. The grease was, and still is, shared and
sometimes given away as a gift. The valuable and nutritious end
product is used on many foods; salmon, halibut, herring roe, and
berries, similar to the way butter is used. The grease was used
for trade with other First Nations that did not harvest oolichan.
Routes Lead to Overlooked Origin of 'Oregon', University of Oregon, Eugene
Page, Haisla people of the Kitamaat Village.
of the Northwest Coast, by Scott Byram and David G. Lewis, Oregon Historical
Quarterly, Summer 2001, Volume 102, Number 2.
Watches, Tsagaglalal, by Rick Rubin, Oregon Culture Heritage
The Ghost Run of
the Cowlitz, by Richard A. Hinrichsen, Cowlitz Historical Quarterly, 1998,
Volume 40, Number 2, pages 5-21.
Pan-Fried Smelt Recipe:
Some macho folks will
fry these silvery fish without benefit of cleaning, since the fish
have eaten nothing since leaving the ocean some 80 miles away, but I
have always preferred cleaning them as you would a trout and frying
the cleaned smelt in butter until nearly crisp. Grabbing the tail
and using a fork, neatly separate the backbone from the meat. This
will leave about two good mouthfuls per fish. Most people will eat
15 to 20 smelt before calling it quits.
Yields: 2 servings
Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 3 min
2 pounds whole fresh smelt, cleaned and heads removed
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup butter
2 lemons, cut into 8 wedges
Rinse cleaned smelt under cold running
water and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle fish cavities with
salt and pepper.
Place flour in a shallow dish. In another shallow
dish, pour the lemon juice, dip both sides of the smelt in lemon
juice, then coat both sides with flour.
In a large frying pan over medium-high
heat, melt butter; add the smelt and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning
once, or until fish is lightly browned and flakes readily when
prodded with a fork. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
Place smelt on a platter, garnish with lemon wedges, and serve
Makes 2 servings.