It appears smelt are returning to the Columbia River and some tributaries in big numbers for a second straight winter, with sea lions gorging on the silvery fish Monday in the North Fork of the Lewis River.
Also called eulachon, smelt were reported Monday in the main Columbia River as far upstream as Frenchman’s Bar west of Vancouver. Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said smelt are in the North Fork of the Lewis River at least as far upstream as Lewis River Golf Course.
A group of sea lions were feasting along the shore of the North Fork, with people stopping along state Highway 503 to take photos of the spectacle. Hymer said the smelt entered the Lewis about the middle of last week.
There are no open or pending recreational or commercial smelt seasons. Sport dipping was open in the Cowlitz River for five Saturday mornings, ending this past Saturday.
“It was the best I’ve ever seen. It was incredible,’’ said Harry Barber of Washougal about Saturday’s dipping in the lower Columbia. “Guys were getting limits — and overlimits — in one dip.’’
Barber said it took five minutes to catch two 10-pound limits. The smelt were so close to shore, his 2-year-old granddaughter participated.
Hymer said smelt have been reported in the Cowlitz as far upstream as Blue Creek, near Cowlitz Trout Hatchery.
Commercial fishing in the lower Columbia was allowed from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays through March 6.
The commercial fishermen landed 18,323 pounds. On the final day of commercial fishing Thursday, there was only one landing of 120 pounds.
Doug Case of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said that probably was a result of the commercial fishermen’s having filled their markets the week before, when 16,400 pounds were landed.
Sport fishermen targeting spring chinook salmon at Frenchman’s Bar reported smelt Monday, fueling speculation the fish will enter Oregon’s Sandy River again.
Stream flows are high from the recent rains and warming temperatures but were dropping Monday.
The North Fork of the Lewis River at Ariel was moving at 14,300 cubic feet per second, compared with a normal rate for the date of 5,780 cubic feet per second. The Columbia River was a high 243,000 cubic feet per second Monday afternoon, down from a quite high 315,800 earlier.
Huge smelt runs are a tradition in Southwest Washington and Oregon, where they have been dipped for decades by sport fishermen. Then the run appeared to collapse, resulting in a 2010 federal listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The fish are good for humans to eat, and aquariums and zoos prize them as food for aquatic mammals.