Dead smelt seem everywhere in lower Columbia

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Smelt continue to swarm up tributaries of the Columbia River, and their bodies litter local riverbanks.

Despite the run’s apparent strength, it’s still illegal to dip for the endangered species — or even pick up dead ones — and enforcement agents have issued several tickets. In some cases the offending anglers made their illicit activity brazenly obvious.

A 20-mile mass of smelt was spotted in the Columbia in early March, and the fish have entered the Cowlitz several times.

On March 18 and 19, Craig Olds, lead smelt biologist for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, surveyed smelt all the way up the Cowlitz to the Toutle River.

“They were very thick,” he said, and extended one mile up the Toutle’s north fork.

Olds said researchers have been surprised to find smelt there, and he’s expanding his surveys into the south fork.

On Wednesday, hundreds of dead smelt lined the banks at Gerhart Gardens in Longview, and a steady stream of smelt could be seen swimming just offshore.

Unlike during most smelt runs, no birds and marine mammals were spotted at Gerhart Gardens.

Joe Hymer, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the birds and sea lions may have glutted themselves.

“The smelt run is so big the seagulls don’t want them right now,” Hymer said.

Olds said the run is later than usual.

“We think this is a very large spawning run and we think something held them back,” such as abnormal water temperature or flow rates. “Maybe what normally happens over two months is squeezed into a short period of time.”

Earlier this week, the Sandy River near Troutdale, Ore., was thick with smelt, so much that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a reminder that it’s illegal to dip for them.

But both Oregon and Washington wildlife agents have written tickets for illegal dipping.

Last week, a Washington officer came across two men on the Cowlitz near the Cowlitz-Lewis county line.

“Their hooting and hollering seemed out of place with steelhead activity being so slow,” the agent reported. “These steelhead fishermen had taken a young alder tree as a handle and tied a clam net in the fork to make a very functional dip net for smelt. They figured if they weren’t going to catch steelhead that they might as well get sturgeon bait. They had 216 smelt in their bucket.”

The fish and net were seized, and the subjects were cited.

In another case, Castle Rock police stopped a vehicle on Interstate 5 towing a trailer with pontoon boats — and a stringer of smelt hanging between the pontoons. The trailer was even more noticeable because of the neatly lettered “White Trash” sign.

Last Saturday, smelt were spawning along the shoreline of the Columbia River upstream of Vancouver.

Capt. Murray Schlenker watched a man collect smelt by hand and stuff them in various objects along the beach. The man then came back and picked up the objects as if he were picking up trash. He had more than 22 pounds of fish when he was cited.

Hymer said that possessing smelt picked up from the shore can be likened to “having bag full of spotted owls,” also an endangered species.

Smelt were listed as threatened on the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010, and dipping for them has been prohibited since then. Biologists want to develop a more accurate way of gauging the population before considering reopening the seasons.

Though this year’s run appears to be strong, researchers want to show “that it’s not a one-year deal,” Hymer said.

The ESA listing covers smelt all the way from the Mad River in Northern California into British Columbia, so satisfactory runs throughout that area would be needed to be de-listed.

“To get that process, it’s going to take a while,” Hymer said.