Smelt-dipping will return to the banks of the Cowlitz River as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has approved a one-day recreational fishery on Thursday.
During the limited opener, a designated portion of the Cowlitz River in Southwest Washington will be open for recreational dip-netting from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for one day only.
“The fish have arrived at a great time to open a recreational dipping opportunity,” said Laura Heironimus, WDFW’s Columbia River smelt lead. “Early season forecasts indicated a potential recreational opening, and we are excited to open this fishery to the public.”
Dip-netting from the shore is permitted on the river from the Highway 432 Bridge near Kelso upstream to the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp, located approximately 1,300 feet upstream of the Highway 411/A Street Bridge in Castle Rock. It is unlawful to harvest smelt from a vessel.
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.
It’s often a crowded and festive affair. One dip in 2022 drew an estimated 16,000 people to the Cowlitz River over five hours.
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.
While many smelt dippers enjoy them cooked or smoked, a large chunk of the harvest is used as bait by fishermen targeting sturgeon.
Fishery managers will continue to monitor the run and catch effort from Thursday’s fishery to determine if additional fishing days can be supported. For future updates and regulations, visit the Cowlitz River smelt fishing webpage, WDFW’s newsroom, and the emergency fishing rules.
A fishing license is not currently required for dip-netting smelt. However, anglers are required to follow all regulations.
Each dip-netter is allowed to retain a daily limit of up to 10 pounds of smelt. For reference, 10 pounds of smelt fills about a quarter of a five-gallon bucket, though anglers are advised to bring their own scale to keep track of their catch.
Anglers must keep all smelt caught until they reach the daily limit. Each harvester is required to use a separate container to hold their catch, which must be either in their presence or marked with their name.
With potentially strong river levels and flows on the Cowlitz River Thursday, dip-netters are strongly advised to exercise caution. WDFW recommends the use of personal flotation devices.
WDFW Enforcement officers will be present to ensure public safety and enforce regulations, including the 10-pound limit and separate container requirement, during the open hours of the fishery.
Eulachon, commonly known as Columbia River smelt, have been listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 2010 due to a sharp decline in returns that began in the 1990s.
To ensure a sustainable harvest, fishery managers monitor the fish population each year. The recreational fishery plays a crucial role in this process, providing the opportunity to gather biological data on the spawning grounds.