Surf Smelt     Hypomesus pretiosus



This beautiful marine fish is a member of a group of fish which, along with herring and anchovy, are commonly called bait fish because they are used as bait to catch larger predatory fish such as salmon. Bait fish occur in large numbers in schools and are fed upon by a variety of other major predators such as sea birds, harbor seals and humans.


Surf Smelt can be distinguished from non-smelt bait fish by the presence of a fin (called the adipose fin) between the dorsal fin and the tail fin.  However unlike other smelts in this area, the Surf Smelt has a very small mouth which ends below the front of the eye. The upper part of the body is usually blue-green, but develops a golden color in mature males like this seven inch specimen.  On average males live for about two years while females can live for three years and can grow up to 10 inches.


Surf Smelt range from Prince William Sound, Alaska to southern California where they lay their eggs in the high intertidal zone in a sandy pea gravel substrate. The females move on to the beach during periods of extreme high tide attaching the eggs to gravel. The males immediately fertilize the eggs. This usually occurs between May and October.  The eggs remain in place for two to five weeks depending on water temperature before hatching at a high tide.  The larvae move offshore where they feed on a variety of small plankton. They continue to feed on small prey such as amphipods, crab, shrimp and fish larvae, marine worms and comb jellies.


The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works with shoreline land owners to reduce the impact of shoreline structures, such as bulkheads, on surf smelt spawning beaches.