All Eyes On Lower Cowlitz For Friday Smelt Opener

Signs are pointing to at least some smelt being around for Friday’s chance to dip for them in the lower Cowlitz.

BRAD HOLE HOISTS A DIP NET WITH A HANDFUL OF COWLITZ SMELT SCOOPED OUT OF THE RIVER DURING 2015’S OPENER. (FISHING PHOTO CONTEST)

WDFW’s Laura Heironimus points to reports of fish in the Cowlitz as far up as Carnival Market in Kelso, “tons of sea lions and birds” that she saw, and smelt also in the Kalama and Lewis Rivers and Carrolls Slough.

“Those are good signs of a larger run,” she says.

It will be the first recreational opener since 2017’s, which was a bust with most just “paddling the river with nets,” in the words of one disgusted dipper.

With smelt listed under the Endangered Species Act, WDFW is taking a conservative approach, and evidence of that is most clear in which day the agency picked for the limited opener — Friday instead of Saturday.

That will effectively limit effort and overall catch, but could still yield enough information to consider another opener.

Creel samplers along the banks and a boat monitoring the open waters of the Cowlitz will help collect data, she says.

As it is, WDFW used commercial catches to help determine the run was large enough to support a limited recreational fishery.

Netters brought in 1,800 pounds on Monday, Feb. 3, or about 300 pounds per delivery.

“When it’s over 200 pounds per delivery, that’s a good indicator, Heironimus says.

That tally did drop last Thursday to an average of about 100 pounds, but she says she heard that effort was impacted by weather conditions.

Data from yesterday’s netting wasn’t available as of early this afternoon.

There’s not much market for smelt outside of sturgeon bait these days, so commercial effort is low, according to WDFW’s Ryan Lothrop, but his sense is that this year’s run is as big if not bigger than 2019’s 4.2 million pounds, which surprised managers.

He says that last year’s “bumper crop” of 3-year-old fish should make up the “core component” of 2020’s run.

Once upon a time, smelt dipping was open year-round on the Columbia and its tributaries, with daily limits of 20 pounds, and commercial catches in the “millions of pounds” range.

But the stock began to decline in the 1990s, and restrictions began to be placed on fisheries, paring back the sport limit to 10 pounds and generally holding openers two days a week, then Saturdays only, until by 2010 the stock was listed.

SEA LIONS GATHER INSIDE THE MOUTH OF THE COWEEMAN RIVER AT KELSO, MOST LIKELY FOLLOWING THE 2016 RUN OF ESA-LISTED EULACHON, OR SMELT, UP THE COLUMBIA RIVER. THE ENDANGERED SALMON AND FISHERIES PREDATION ACT GIVES STATE MANAGERS MORE LATITUDE TO LETHALLY REMOVE THE SPECIES IN TRIBUTARIES OF THE COLUMBIA. (SKYLAR MASTERS)

For three years there was no season, but state and federal managers agreed to hold limited “research fisheries” to gauge the run and gather biological data like smelt size and age.

That led to four years with limited opportunities, but the last opener, 2017, saw just 540 pounds dipped along the banks of the Cowlitz and led to grumblings that WDFW had “orchestrated” the fisheries version of a grand snipe hunt.

In truth, an outsized interest in a very limited opportunity collided with very limited numbers of actual fish which managed to elude outsized nets.

It also turns out there’s more to why smelt make their spawning run when they do than just a winter day or two on the calendar.

Still, unlike fisheries for salmon, steelhead, trout, walleye, halibut, etc., with no license required to dip smelt there’s no dedicated revenue stream for the species and so less is known about them, limiting WDFW’s ability to manage the stock, according to Lothrop.

For Feb. 14’s five-hour dippery, open waters on the Cowlitz stretch from the Highway 432 bridge near the mouth up through Kelso and Longview to Castle Rock’s Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp, which is about a quarter of a mile above the Highway 411/A Street bridge in town.

Dipping is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The daily limit of 10 pounds fills about a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket.

Besides the sneaky ways of smelt, the other challenge will be river conditions.

The same rain-warmed flows that may be drawing fish into the Cowlitz are also more than twice as high as average for this time of year, though also dropping steadily and expected to bottom out on Friday.

WDFW warned river-goers to be careful. Game wardens and county sheriff’s deputies will be on hand as much to try and keep things safe as to ensure any smelt poachers are caught.

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