Silversides—Family Atherinidae


Species: Atherinopsis californiensis (Girard, 1854); from the Greek words ather (a spike or arrow) and ops (like), and californiensis (in reference to the geographic area).

Alternate Names: Smelt, California smelt, horse smelt, blue smelt, silverside, pescado del rey, Peixe rey and Pesce rey. Called pejerrey mocho in Mexico.

Identification: Smelt-like shape and very similar to the topsmelt. They have two dorsal fins; the anal fin begins below the first dorsal fin. Their coloring is grayish-green above with a bluish tinge, silver below. A metallic band tinged with blue and edged with bright blue extends the length of the body. The cheek has a yellowish blotch.

Jacksmelt caught by Mike Granat at the Port View Park PIer in Oakland

Size: To 17 1/2 inches. In southern California, anglers catch both jacksmelt and topsmelt and most of the fish are small. Occasionally a few larger fish do appear, with almost all fish over 12 inches being jacksmelt. In northern California, the majority of smelt appear to be over 12 inches in length. The “official” California record was a fish weighing 1 lb 8 oz; it was caught near San Nicholas Island in 1998.  

Range: From Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California, and the Gulf of California, to Yaquina Bay, Oregon. Uncommon north of California.

Habitat: Bays and shallow oceanfront water, especially near rocky areas like jetties where there is a good current to sweep food near the fish.

Jacksmelt caught by “Supersmelt” in Newport Bay

Piers: Jacksmelt are caught at virtually every pier in California. Larger jacksmelt are especially abundant at piers in bays, and even more so at bay piers adjacent to rocky points. Best bets: Oceanside Pier, Newport Pier, Huntington Beach Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Gaviota Pier, Pismo Beach Pier, Port San Luis Pier, Santa Cruz Wharf, Pillar Point Harbor Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Berkeley Pier, Elephant Rock Pier, Fort Baker Pier, Lawson Landing Pier (Tomales Bay), Tides Wharf (Bodega Bay), Commercial Street Dock (Eureka) and the “B” Street Pier (Crescent City).

Shoreline: Sometimes taken by inshore anglers fishing near rocks or jetties.

Boats: Sometimes taken by boaters, especially those fishing Morro Bay and San Francisco Bay.

Thomas Orosco and a mess of jacksmelt from the Berkeley Pier

Bait and Tackle: Two main outfits are used. First is a simple snag line made with several small hooks, either left bare or to which colored yarn or cloth has been attached (like a Lucky Joe rigging). This is commonly used in southern California and the angler simply jigs the leader up and down trying to attract and snag the fish. In northern California, a leader is usually made up with six to eight small hooks spaced every six inches apart. A float or large bobber is attached above the hooks. Each hook is baited with a very small piece of pile worm, bloodworm or shrimp and the outfit is allowed to drift with the current. The result is often 3-6 fish caught at one time. Caution — In San Francisco Bay these  smelt rigs are limited to three hooks.

Food Value: A tasty fish when pan-fried although there are a lot of bones and usually quite a few worms in the flesh.

Comments: For their size jacksmelt put up a terrific fight. Many anglers have been startled to have a jacksmelt hit a bait at full throttle and come to realize that a fairly small fish has put up such a terrific battle.

A jacksmelt from the Port San Luis Pier

A jacksmelt from the Elephant Rock Pier

If you catch one jacksmelt you are almost assured of catching more — Jacksmelt at the Candlestick Pier in San Francisco in 2008

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