Spirinchus Starksi



Nearshore, Rivers


3" - 9"

Night Smelt 

Also Known As: Nghtfish, White Bait, Candlefish

Night Smelt (Spirinchus starksi) Fish Description

Also known as Nightfish, Candlefish, and White Bait, the Night Smelt (along with the Surf Smelt) is a true smelt and member of the Osmeridae family. It is usually confused with the Longfin Smelt due to their similar appearance. 

The Night Smelt spawns at night whereas its sibling Surf Smelt spawns during the day. Both of them are common near the mouths of the river and in Monterey Bay. The two relatives are distinguished by the size of their mouths; the Night Smelt’s mouth reaches up to the edge of its pupil, while the Surf Smelt’s mouth does not.

The body of Night Smelts is generally silvery to golden in color; its back is brownish-green. It has no dorsal and anal spines but has 8 to 10 dorsal soft rays and 15 to 19 anal soft rays. Male Night Smelts have longer pectoral fins.


Diet and Size

Some of the favorites of the Night Smelt are plankton, and small crustaceans. 

On average, Night Smelts measure up around 3 to 9 inches in length. They live up to 3 years.


Interesting Facts About the Night Smelt 

  • Night Smelts give off an odor similar to that of a cucumber.
  • This species is one of the healthiest and most delicious fish for human consumption.
  • Night Smelt is very tasty; its flavor is rich and mild. It has a delicate flesh with some crunchy bones. It can be smoked, sauteed, or fried.
  • Some Indians use the fatty part of the Night Smelt in making candles.
  • The Night Smelt (S. starksi) was named after American ichthyologist E.C. Starks.


Fishing Techniques: How to Catch a Night Smelt

The best way for anglers to catch Night Smells is through using an A-frame dip net. This Native American method and design has been used for thousands of years in the California Coast. They can also be captured using seines.

Since only light gear is used when fishing for Night Smelts, they are usually caught alive in small quantities without any bycatch nor damage to the environment.

It is best to catch them in the evening during their spawning runs. Anglers can use two-man jump nets of the A-frame dip net mentioned above. Night Smelts lay their eggs in the sand; they ride with the breaking wave to reach the shore then return to the sea with the next wave. Anglers can use this opportunity to wait for the Night Smells as they run to the shore by standing back from the breaking waves and watch out for the fish with their nets. Night Smelts prefer low rolling waves rather than big breakers.

The best smelting beaches are the Russian River, Portuguese Beach, and Scott Creek.


Habitat and Distribution

The Night Smelt is benthopelagic — meaning, it lives near or on the bottom of the lakes or seas as deep as 419 feet.

Night Smelts originated from the Pacific Coast of North America. They abound the Northeast Pacific waters, specifically from Alaska to Point Arguello in California. They are also located in the waters of Shelikof Bay of Alaska, San Francisco Bay, and Moss Landing Harbor.