No. 7: Smelt

A staple in the culture of the Cowlitz Indians, smelt were once so plentiful they were celebrated yearly, and Kelso dubbed itself “Smelt Capital of the World.”

One of the annual rituals that accompanied the midwinter smelt run to the Cowlitz River was the coronation of “Queen of the Eulachon” (the scientific word for smelt) from among students at Lower Columbia College.

The small, silvery fish still appear in the Cowlitz to spawn, but tight restrictions because of the smelt’s threatened status often leave would-be dippers standing on the sidelines watching as seagulls, bald eagles and seals gorge on the smelts’ oily flesh.

If you’re lucky enough to get a “mess” (the amount of fish varies according to appetite), a popular cooking method is to coat the smelt in a cornmeal and flour mixture and pan-fry them. Some people smoke the fish whole — and eat them heads and all — and many fishermen and crabbers use the fish as bait.

The undisputed king of smelt eating was Darwin Weber of Kelso, who won Kelso’s annual smelt-eating contest each year from 1972 through at least 2003. His secret: “Eat one more than the guy in second place.”

The contest ended with the decline of the runs, a decline mirrored by the collapse of salmon stocks in general and the loss of natural abundance in forests and rivers that once seemed limitless. Efforts to save native runs, an essential part of the region’s ecosystem, have driven up power prices, town down dams and restricted fishing. Gillnetting, once a major industry, is hardly a paying proposition. And the decline of smelt is one reason why Longview made its controversial choice to abandon the Cowlitz River as a water source.

Love them or hate them, smelt have played a role in feeding families since the times of early settlers.

— Brenda McCorkle

Related article: 50 objects (in 50 days) that help define Cowlitz County

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