The Cliff: A tale of night smelt

December 6, 2012

story by Kirk Lombard
illustration by Gideon Chase
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen


I SUPPOSE IT WAS INEVITABLE that someone who spends as much time fishing in, and pontificating about, the ocean as I do would begin to grow weary of it. But over time I began to see it not as the benign, uncaring (if at times generous) giant it had always been but as an angry, hostile, and sadistic monster to whom I owed my untiring devotion. I imagine people often feel this way about their day jobs — which is why I decided to make a living off the sea in the first place. For seven and a half years I worked as the Department of Fish and Game catch monitor for the Bay Area and now make a living conducting coastal walking tours and tidepooling seminars through my business Seaforager. In addition I am the author of the Monkeyface News, a blog devoted to the pursuit and capture of nonmainstream fishes, and have long been both a recreational and commercial fisherman, providing seafood to several select buyers in San Francisco. In any event, despite all this, I suddenly found myself shunning the ocean, avoiding it, embracing a more civic, land-based life: going to museums, writing books, shuffling through the streets, reading the classics (yes, even that).

Then one evening I looked up and saw the moon in its last quarter. Damn … I thought, didn’t I used to fish these moons for a tiny, sparkling, cucumber-scented fish called the night smelt? Didn’t I go to great lengths to catch them? Didn’t I once think, despite their small size, that they were the greatest of all fishes?

But as I mulled these questions in my salt-logged 45-year-old brain, I remembered the deadlines, and the bad back, and the holes in the waders, and the long drive to the smelt grounds, and the pounding surf, and the cold hazy windy misery of that weird south breeze … and then of course there was the cliff.

There was simply no avoiding the fact that the night smelt, if they were even running, were running along that stretch of beach whose only shoreward approach includes an agonizing, death-defying, back-wrenching climb down (and then up) a sandy escarpment known to fishermen simply as the cliff.

“Oh Christ, I’m just too old for the fuckin’ cliff,” I said aloud … but even as I spoke, I found myself moving instinctively toward the old truck, found my hands fumbling for the keys, found the door swinging open — and then I was on the highway as the sun descended, flying oceanward to the smelt grounds.

Smelt 101 .a

Most Bay Area residents who know anything at all about fish will know, or I should say think they know, what a smelt is. This is because two of the most commonly caught species in San Francisco Bay are the jacksmelt and its cousin the topsmelt. However, despite the names, neither of these is a true smelt. Jacks and tops belong to the silverside family, Atherinopsidae (which includes grunion and flying fish). True smelts belong to the Osmeridae. This may seem like arcane cladistics, but there is a huge difference between the local silversides and true smelts. Jacksmelt are notoriously dirty fish, with sticky, nasty scales and black stuff in their guts. Not to mention the worms. Anyone who has cleaned a jacksmelt has probably experienced this firsthand. If you haven’t, take my word for it: Jacksmelt are one of the wormiest fish in the ocean. In contrast, true smelts, like night smelt and surf smelt, are clean, sparkling, scaleless, and utterly delicious. They do not live long enough to acculumulate toxins and, lacking the thick scales of the jacksmelt clan, are extremely easy to clean (in fact, night smelt, the smaller of the two, are usually served whole as “fries with eyes”).

Other true smelts in California include the endangered eulachon, delta, and longfin smelts. All of the osmerids require cold, clean water and will often be the first thing to go if an ecosystem is compromised. Eulachon (or candlefish), for instance, were until the 1970s one of the most populous fishes in the Klamath River (by biomass during their spawning runs). Today they are virtually extirpated in California. Delta and longfin smelts have similarly declined. Night smelt and surf smelt stocks, however, seem to be faring quite well. Surf smelt have long been one of the most popularly soughtafter sport fish in Northern California. Both species were extremely important to coastal Indian tribes.

Smelt 201.b

As far as catching them goes, surf smelt are caught by means of Hawaiian casting net, night smelt by A-frame dip net. The A-frame is one of the oldest fishing technologies in California, having been used by native tribes to catch smelt and salmon (in a sentimental attempt to honor these ancient hunter-gatherers, I actually carved a bunch of pseudo-Amerindian pictograms on my A-frame). An A-frame net consists of two slanted side pieces and a cross beam. The side pieces are six feet long and the bottom of the net is approximately six feet across. The net is strung between the two sides and dipped into oncoming waves. The reason A-frames are used on night smelt and throw nets on surf smelt is that, first, the mesh size on throw nets is too big for night smelt (they get gilled) but perfect for surf smelt. And second, A-frames are far easier to deal with in the dark than throw nets.

Good Sand

Anyway, as I drove, I tried to remind myself of the beauty of these fish. How magical a night smelt spawn can be: seals in the foam, fish washing up on the beach, the moon’s reflection painted on the surface of the ocean, the wind, the waves, yada yada. Yet despite my best efforts, I couldn’t convince myself that this was anything but a lame attempt to justify a ridiculous expenditure of energy and time and money. And in the end, pulling up at the parking lot, I was already looking for excuses to bail: The wind was too strong, the shore break too rough, the swell too big, and the smelt unlikely to run.

Standing atop the cliff, I looked down. Three fishermen on the beach. Two local bass pluggers and one of the surf smelt regulars. Not a fish between the three of them. Four seals in the surf zone. The universal fish finder, aka a Caspian tern, was hovering over the swash. Obviously the tern was keeping these guys on the beach — all three of them were staring at it, hoping it would spot something for them. Still two hours till sunset.

One hour later the tern was gone and the seals were lying on their backs staring up at the clouds. In harbor seal body language this translates as: We’re done for the day; there’s nothing here worth chasing. Then that awful south wind started to pick up. “I can’t believe I drove all the way down here for this, again!” I yelled. But my voice, buffetted by the wind, came out sounding puny and ridiculous — even more puny and ridiculous than it usually sounds in comparisonwith the wind and the roar of the waves.

A small flock of California gulls flapped past. Heading for their nightly roost. I sat back down in my truck and turned on the Giants game.

With Lincecum faltering and runners on the corners, I switched the radio off and turned on the audiobook I’d been listening to: an underappreciated actor named George Guidall reading The Odyssey in warm, somber tones. The fact that I had arrived at Book XXIV was evidence of how little fishing I’d done this summer. Anyway, Homer wasn’t getting it done, so I turned it off and watched the sunset. I’m always hoping to see that fleeting greenness everyone talks about, but again, staring right at it, waiting for it, focusing all my energies on it, I saw nothing — no greenness, no flash, just the slow and deliberate death of another day. A cold wind blew from the water. The two bass pluggers turned from the waves and trudged toward the cliff.

At this point I figured it was time to fondle my gear for a minute, even if I had no intention of fishing. My waders, Gus’ Discount rubber cheapos, looked like World War I army surplus equipment, cracked and slightly torn between the legs. The big question: to put the waders on pantless and risk embarrassment, or to keep the pants on and deal with a damp frozen crotch all night. The wind blew cold again. “Fuck it, I’m leaving,” I said aloud.

“Hey man,” said a voice behind me. “I see you got an A-frame in the truck. You going down there?”

It was the surf smelt fisherman. He had evidently climbed up the cliff while I was sitting in the truck. I stared at him for a while without answering. A tough, handsome, slightly salty and sand-smeared fisherman’s face stared back at me. I had harassed this guy maybe four times over the years when I worked for the Fish and Game Department. Did he remember me?

“Are you going for night smelt?” he asked again.

Here was the moment of truth. At the risk of being un-PC, I have to say it like it is. Had this fisherman not been Filipino, I might have answered no. But being that he was a Filipino fisherman, and that Filipino fishermen represent to me the very zenith of piscatorial wisdom, passion, and skill, especially where shore fishing is concerned, there was only one way I could answer the question.

“Yes, goddamn it, I’m going down there.”

The fisherman’s name was Angel. You can’t make this shit up. Angel, after skunking all day on surf smelt, was hoping he would run into someone who wanted to go for nighties (he’d left his A-frame at home). But the night smelt runs have been so miserable this year that he wasn’t expecting to find anyone. Until he saw a curious-looking A-frame with pseudo-Ohlone pictograms carved all over it, sitting in the back of the Ford Ranger next to his car in the lot.

“That’s a nice A-frame,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

Having now committed myself to this unhappy venture, I stepped into my predampened waders (with pants on, mind you — my friendship with Angel was too young to allow for butt-naked wader wearing); grabbed the A-frame, a bucket, and an abalone net bag (the accoutrements of smelt fishing); and, with Angel behind me, descended the cliff.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this again,” I said.

“What?” said Angel.

“I dread this fucking cliff,” I said. “I see it in my nightmares.”

In seven minutes we were on the beach. My knees were fine. My back felt great. I looked toward the waves. Not a seal to be seen. All the relevant birds nestled down for the night somewhere. It was 8:39 p.m., 22 minutes till true dark. We carried the gear down to the shore and plopped it in the sand.

“This water looks awful,” I said.

Angel felt the sand with his feet. “Yeah, but the sandis good.”

As I mentioned above, night smelt and surf smelt require coarse-grained, loosely packed sand. If the sand grains are too small — like say, the sand grains at Ocean Beach — surf and night smelt cannot wiggle down to lay their eggs in the swash. I grabbed a handful of it and let it drip between my fingers. Angel, of course, was right. The sand was good. Perfect, in fact. But this was no time for optimism.

“Look, Angel, I gotta leave at 9:15, OK? I don’t want to be out here all night.”

“No problem,” said Angel. “It’s your gear, leave when you want.”

At 9:00 I handed Angel my A-frame. If I could get out of this evening without soaking my balls in freezing salt water, so much the better. There wasn’t a bird or a seal within miles. I could still see a faint suggestion of blue on the horizon. Still light enough for us to see each other clearly. Angel took the net, whipped it around, opened it, and slapped the crossbar in the slot — not unlike Odysseus with his bow against the suitors. Night smelt tremble as this man approaches, I thought.

Angel marched to the shore and dipped. Nothing. He dipped again. Nothing.

“Too light,” he said.

Despite the fact that Angel’s presence had given me a slight glimmer of hope, for the next 15 minutes I railed on and on about how many fruitless evenings I had spent in pursuit of night smelt. I roughly tabulated my gas expenditures, how much protein I had taken in versus effort (the predator’s equation). How much actual money I had made — or, I should say, lost. At the end of this diatribe, Angel laughed and said, “It’s 9:15. You still wanna leave?”

Another pivotal moment. “No. I’m staying.”

At 9:30, despite fog, total darkness, and lack of a headlamp, Angel said he saw seals about 100 feet down the beach.

“Where?” I said.

“Right there!”


A seal splashed in the foam. Another one rocketed through the swash. Angel dipped, but I couldn’t see if he got any fish. “They’re here,” he said. Suddenly the A-frame was back in my hands. I dipped. I pulled. I looked down.

There’s something about wresting fish from the roiling surf…

And then everything changed. The crushing sound of the waves was an orchestra of wonderment; the chilly wind wasn’t so much chilly as clean and fresh; I heard someone laughing and realized it was me. I had forgotten that, yes, despite the best predictions, recent failures, and a bad attitude, sometimes you get lucky and the fish just run.

There’s something about wresting fish from the roiling surf: the sparkle of the smelt as the sand filters out of the net, the feeling of them bumping into your feet, into the frame, into the net, the mist lingering over the sea at night, starlight, the rush of the waves all around you, the simple perfection of the A-frame, the foghorn, the cucumber scent of the bucket. Did I mention that they smell faintly of cucumbers?

In 30 minutes we scored about 10 pounds of night fish each. Small numbers, but enough for personal consumption — more than enough, in fact. We ascended the cliff in 8.5 minutes without breaking a sweat. Hillary in his prime could have done no better. Alone in the dark parking lot, we divvied up the catch, exchanging business cards and briefly deconstructing the night’s adventure. After a while, I climbed into my truck and said good-bye to my newest fishing buddy.

He smiled. “Hey Kirk,” he said. “The cliff wasn’t so bad,was it?”

“The cliff?” I said, “What cliff?” 

KIRK LOMBARD is a commercial fisherman, the writer of the fishing blog, and founder of Seaforager tours – a walking-tour business that educates people about fishing and foraging options along the Bay Area Coast. He also spent seven years working as one of the Department of Fish and Game’s catch monitors and owns the current state record for the largest monkeyface eel caught on hook and line.

GIDEON CHASE is a painter and illustrator living in San Francisco. He graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009. See more of his work at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

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