Forage Fish
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Closeup photo of Night Smelt with descriptions of identifying anatomy.

Forage Fish Identification Guide

Night Smelt
Spirinchus starksi

Rarely caught in the Puget Sound basin but occasionally captured in nearshore water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Archipelago, and off the northern Washington coast.

Description: The body of the Night Smelt is elongate and golden to green with silvery sides. The lateral line reaches just to the dorsal fin.  It has a long upper jaw which almost reaches to the posterior edge of the eye, and the lower jaw projects slightly in front to the upper jaw. There are fine teeth in a single row on both jaws.  They are similar in appearance to the Longfin Smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys).   The two species can be distinguished by a combination of morphological differences, pectoral-fin length (typically shorter in Night Smelt), snout shape (more pointed in Night Smelt), anal-fin ray length (shorter in Night Smelt) and lateral line scale count (higher in Night Smelt).   Of these, pectoral-fin length relative to the distance to the pelvic fin and size of the anal fin are the most useful field characters.

Maximum Size: To 23 cm (9 in) in length.

Maximum Age: Up to 3 years.

Range/Habitat: Night Smelt range from the southeastern Gulf of Alaska to Central California.  They are found from the surface and surf to 128 m (422 ft).  They spawn nocturnally, in the surf zone, over coarse sand beaches from January through October, perhaps peaking in the summer.   Night Smelt typically feed on small crustaceans and polychaetes, as well as larval fish.   In 2014, genetics work done by Paquin et. al. confirmed Night Smelt (S. starksi) presence  in Discovery Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Fun Facts: Many smelt species smell like cucumbers!


  • Love, M.S., 2011. Certainly More Than You Want to Know About The Fishes of The Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience. Really Big Press, Santa Barbara, California, 650 p.
  • Paquin, M.M., Kagley, A.N., Fresh, K.L. and Orr, J.W., 2014. First Records of the Night Smelt, Spirinchus starksi, in the Salish Sea, Washington. Northwestern Naturalist, 95(1), pp.40-43.
  • Night Smelt Wiki
  • FishBase.Org

Photo: Ken Oda