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Come take a dip: Cowlitz River popular for one-day smelt dipping

Thousands turn out along the river for their catch

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Smelt dippers line the bank at the Lion's Pride Park near Castle Rock. People came out in big numbers on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, to take part in the first smelt dipping season in three years.
Smelt dippers line the bank at the Lion's Pride Park near Castle Rock. People came out in big numbers on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, to take part in the first smelt dipping season in three years. (Jeff Otto/For The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For the first time in three years there was an open season for dipping smelt in Washington’s Cowlitz River on Friday, and the public came by the thousands to take part.

People of all ages gathered along the banks of the Cowlitz to try dip-netting along the open section of the river, in what could only be described as a festival-like atmosphere.

Parking places were hard to find in the popular areas. Men, women, and children thronged the shoreline wherever there was room to work a dipnet. The weather also cooperated, with partly cloudy skies and just a little breeze.

As some fishers left with their limits, their spots were quickly snatched up by other people looking for a spot to fish.

Dip-netting smelt is more of a social event than a fishery, and people were gathered in groups of family or friends to enjoy a day on the riverbank.

High water in the river meant the fishers had to be careful, and most people with children in tow kept them back from the swift water.

The Cowlitz was open to netting smelt from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. from the Highway 432 bridge in Longview up to the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp, located approximately 1,300 feet upstream from the Highway 411/A Street Bridge in Castle Rock.

Smelt, or Columbia River eulachon, are an oily fish that are sometimes referred to as candle fish. They are so rich in oil that when dried they can burn like a candle. They are long and thin, with most fish running from 6 to 9 inches, and silvery in color.

The fish are anadromous, which means they spawn in fresh water but live out their lives in salt water. While the Cowlitz is the favored river for smelt, they are also known to slip into other streams, such as Oregon’s Sandy River.

The fish are packed with Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy nutrients. Fish such as smelt are also a good source of Vitamin D.

To catch smelt, dip nets with long handles are swept downstream as the fish swim up. In some area’s waders are needed to reach the fish, but in other places dip-netters do well from the bank.

Historically the fish returned in huge runs numbering in the millions. The runs began collapsing in the late nineties, and in 2010 smelt were listed as an endangered species. Since then the seasons have been reduced, and there were no seasons allowed in 2018 and 2019.

However, commercial harvests in the Columbia were strong enough this year to allow a recreational season to go forward.

Laura Heironimus, the WDFW’s Columbia River smelt, sturgeon, and lamprey lead, said the catch was good through most of the river.

“Gearheart, Rocky Point and Camelot ended up being some of the higher catch rate areas,” said Heironimus. “They did pretty well up until Castle Rock, there wasn’t too much action up there. But, up through Camelot we had pretty good catch rates.”

Johnny and Rebecca Steigall showed up at the Lion’s Pride Park about a mile below the town of Castle Rock to try their luck. Johnny’s first two dips netted one smelt each.

“We’ve got two,” said Rebecca, laughing. “That’s one for each of us.”

They went on to catch quite a few more.

Most fishermen at the park were slowly getting their limits, a total of 10 pounds each, or about one quarter of a five-gallon bucket.

Dan Wittman was working the river’s edge, and getting a few, too.

“We come down here every year when its open,” said Wittman. “They come in spurts, they come and they go,” he said.

“I’m hoping to have a good fry,” he said when asked what he would do with his smelt.

In years past much of the catch was used for sturgeon bait. However, with sturgeon numbers poor, and seasons limited, most of the participants were looking for a meal.

Angela McAlister of the Four Corners General Store in Castle Rock said that the store completely sold out of smelt nets.

“They actually did quite well,” McAlister said. “One person we talked to only got three, but everyone else got their limits.”

She said most were dipping near Lexington.

The last fishery, held in 2017, was described as a “bust,” with very few fish caught. This year was much better, with most fishers were getting their share, even if it took some work.

Law enforcement officers were present, and they found few people taking more than they were allowed. Most non-compliance was in the form of fishers not keeping their catches in a separate container, a must by the law.

Each person must also dip his own fish. No fishing license is required to take part in smelt dipping.

Heironimus did say there was a chance that the states would allow another opener, with an announcement possibly coming in the next day or two.

Columbian staff writer