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News / Sports / Outdoors

Prospects good for at least 1 Cowlitz River smelt dip

Ocean conditions seem favorable for smelt runs

By TERRY OTTO for The Columbian
Published: January 26, 2023, 6:04am
4 Photos
A smelt dip on the Cowlitz River brings about a festival atmosphere as folks gather to have fun, and hopefully end up with a mess of smelt.
A smelt dip on the Cowlitz River brings about a festival atmosphere as folks gather to have fun, and hopefully end up with a mess of smelt. (Terry Otto for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As February approaches, local sportsmen and women start to think about smelt dipping.

Will the popular smelt dip take place on the Cowlitz River this year, or is the run supposed to be too depressed to allow recreational harvest?

The prospects are good for at least one dip this year, according to Laura Heironimus, the sturgeon, smelt and lamprey lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We had pretty good ocean conditions the last two years,” said Heironimus, “and last year was one of the strongest runs we’ve had in the last few years. Our run expectations for this year are similar to last year.”

She said most ocean indicators are good, but there are some questions.

“There is a little bit of uncertainty about the ocean indicators,” Heironimus said. “Some ocean indicators are really good on the one side, but at the other end there are some indicators that we are not exactly sure how they relate directly to the smelt returns.

“Generally, I think it’s still going to be another strong run.”

She reported that the department will get a much clearer idea of the run size once the commercial nets go in the Columbia River.

“We use that commercial monitoring data to help inform us on the abundance of fish,” she said.

Smelt, also called Columbia River eulachon or candlefish, are a small anadromous fish that are known for their high oil content. They are usually from 4 to 8 inches in length.

When the schools return to spawn in the winter, usually in February or March, the state determines if the run is strong enough to allow harvest.

Unregulated harvest led to a crash of the smelt runs around the turn of this century, and in 2010 they were listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. Since that time the states have had to closely regulate smelt dipping and the commercial harvest.

In 2018 and 2019 there were no open recreational seasons for smelt because the runs were depressed.

When there is an opener announced, people line up along the banks of the Cowlitz River and take advantage of the opportunity, dipping the fish up as they migrate close to the shore.

While many smelt dippers enjoy them cooked or smoked, a large chunk of the harvest is used as bait by fishermen targeting sturgeon.

Smelt dipping is fun, and it draws both men and women of all ages. Many families turn a smelt dip into a multi-generational outing.

The typical smelt net has a long, extension handle to allow the fishers to reach out to where the schools are moving through. The net is pulled downstream to catch the fish as they swim upstream.

The sport is very popular, and is getting more popular every year. There is a holiday feel to it, and wherever the banks are accessible people tend to gather.

“We held one dip last year,” Heironimus said. “In that one day of fishing we had a little over 16,000 people dipping in five hours.”

Eulachon are found along the coast from the Bering Sea to Monterey Bay, California. Historically they were an important food for native tribes because they returned in the winter, when other fresh food sources were scarce.

There are other large rivers in the Northwest that get smelt returns, but the Columbia has the largest commercial fishery. There are also other Columbia River tributaries that see smelt returns, but the Cowlitz is the only river open to dipping in southwest Washington.

In years with strong runs the smelt often show up in Oregon’s Sandy River, too.

One of the reasons smelt numbers have been strong is the prevailing La Niña weather pattern. It is a natural pattern that brings colder ocean temperatures. However, scientist report they expect the ocean patterns to switch to an El Niño pattern this year, which Heironimus said is not optimal for smelt.

“When that happens, survival drops off pretty dramatically,” she said. “It’s usually not great for smelt. The shift in ocean conditions correlates to lower smelt survival out there.”

That shift can bring about a double whammy for smelt. They become one of a limited number of food sources for other fish, and they see increased predation.

Also, the pattern brings a shift in the ocean copepods, a major food source for smelt. Cold-water copepod species are rich in fats and nutrition, but warm water copepods provide less of these nutrients.

Copepods are small crustaceans that help form the lower base of the ocean food chain.

Right now things look good for a strong return of the silvery fish, and the prospects are very good for at least one dip.

The chances for a second dip may depend on how well the fishers do in the first one. Heironimus reported that last year’s one day dip took in 75 percent of the overall smelt harvest for the year.

Given that kind of success, managers may have little room for additional days.

As of now, there are few signs of smelt arriving, but there are sea lions gathering in the lower Columbia, and some sea birds are prowling around too. February should bring fresh reports of smelt in the lower Columbia as the run gathers steam.

Potential dippers should keep an eye on the WDFW Smelt webpage for opener announcements.

A fishing license is not needed to dip smelt. Each fisher must dip his own smelt, and must keep them in a separate container. The limit is 10 pounds of smelt, enough to fill a five-gallon bucket about one quarter full.

For more information, check the WDFW smelt dipping website.

Public input sought on smelt

The WDFW announced Wednesday that it is taking public comment on an environmental analysis of a plan to manage smelt in the Columbia River basin.

The new plan identifies current management strategies and makes recommendations for monitoring and evaluation of the population, as well as harvest criteria and communication between state and federal managers.

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The draft management plan is undergoing a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) public comment period. The SEPA determination, draft plan, and supporting documents are available on WDFW’s website. Members of the public can submit comments on the SEPA determination online, by email, or by mail to Lisa Wood, SEPA/NEPA Coordinator, WDFW Habitat Program, Protection Division, P.O. Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. on Feb. 22.