Smelt a no-show for Cowlitz River dippers

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LONGVIEW — Smelt dippers turned out by the thousands for Saturday’s one-day-a-year season on the lower Cowlitz River.

Unfortunately, the hordes who enjoy a meal of the small silvery fish went home with empty buckets.

Dipping was popular, but catching was a bust.

In most locations sampled during the five-hour fishery, the catch was zero. The top dipper at Gearhart Gardens boat ramp had a whopping two smelt.

Smelt were listed in 2010 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Saturday’s short season was intended to serve as research fishery, but also to keep a minimal connection between the public and once-plentiful species.

Dipping was open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. from the Highway 432 bridge upstream to the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp in Castle Rock.

The limit was 10 pounds per person, which is about a quarter of a five-gallon bucket. No fishing license is required to dip for smelt in Washington.

“We’re expecting a modest return about about 3 million pounds of smelt to the Columbia River this year,’’ said Cindy Le Fleur, regional fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a news release last week. “That compared to an estimated 16.6 million pounds in 2014, when the run reached its recent peak.’’

The decision to open the season today came after tracking catch rates in the commercial test fishery in the lower Columbia. Managers were looking for weekly average landings to reach at least 150 pounds per fishermen before opening the Cowlitz sport season.

Landings averaged 281 pounds per commercial fisherman last week.