Creature Feature: Smelt

smeltsSurf smelt (or day smelt) and night smelt are members of the true smelt family. As their names imply, night smelt spawn at night, and surf (or day) smelt spawn during the day. Both are most common from Monterey Bay northward, and usually congregate near river mouths.

Distinguishing Characteristics

  • The two species can be differentiated by noting the size of the mouth: In surf smelt, the mouth does not reach past the pupil of the eye; in night smelt the mouth extends at least to the back edge of the pupil.
  • Both have abdominal pelvic fins and an adipose fin.
  • Surf smelt are silver with a purplish hue, back light green.
  • Night smelt are silver, and brownish-green on the back.

Life History & Other Notes
Spawning takes place in the surf with runs occurring from mid-March into the fall months. Night smelt prefer coarser sand than do surf smelt, and their runs are  more erratic. Males of both species congregate in dense schools in shallow water, waiting to follow the females as they dash in to deposit their eggs on the sand. Males then fertilize the eggs, and both sexes return to deeper water.

Both species are taken in the surf during spawning runs, using two-man jump nets or one-man A-frame nets that seine the fish from incoming breakers. Some famous smelting beaches include Scott Creek (Santa Cruz County), Portuguese Beach and Russian River (Sonoma County), and Smith River Beach (Del Norte County). Smelt are considered by many to be the best-eating fish in the sea.

 Smelt Quick Facts:

Scientific Names:

Hypomesus pretiosus (surf smelt)   Spirinchus starksi (night smelt)

Other Common Names: day smelt (for surf smelt)

Range & Habitat:

North of Long Beach (surf smelt)   North of Pt. Arguello (night smelt)

Length & Weight: Surf smelt to 10 in.; Night smelt to 5+ in.

Life Span: Surf smelt to 5 yrs.; Night smelt to 3 yrs.

Diet: Small crustaceans, plankton

Excerpt from the California Finfish and Shellfish Identification Book

Single copies of the book are available to California residents free of charge by emailing a request to