On Saturday’s Cowlitz River Smelt Opener ‘Bust’

Smelt dipping was “largely a bust” last weekend, but why?

It wasn’t for lack of fishermen.

Thousands descended the banks of the lower Cowlitz, long-handled nets in hand, in hopes of bucketing 10 pounds worth.

But fishery monitors say the most that they observed any one person had in possession was 15 of the thin, oily, footlong fish, a mere tenth of the limit.

SMELT DIPPERS AND OBSERVERS GATHER ALONG THE LOWER COWLITZ BELOW THE ALLEN STREET BRIDGE ON FEBRUARY 25, 2017, DURING A FIVE-HOUR OPENER THAT WAS DESCRIBED BY WDFW FISHERIES BIOLOGIST JOE HYMER AS “LARGELY A BUST” WHEN FEW CAUGHT ANY. (OLAF LANGNESS, WDFW)

That led one regional outdoor reporter to grumble that WDFW had “orchestrated” the fisheries version of a grand snipe hunt on Saturday’s five-hour opener on the Southwest Washington stream.

The truth is more along the lines of outsized interest in a very limited opportunity colliding with very limited numbers of actual fish which managed to elude outsized nets.

Dipping was a long shot to begin with this year due to a “modest” initial forecast, but combined with relatively low and rapidly declining commercial catches and poor river conditions not to mention whatever passes for thinking in the minds of these fish made this a pretty chancy opportunity at best.

So what does go on in the mind of a smelt?

That’s a damned good question, and though I doubt Olaf Langness has “eulachon whisperer” written on his business card, the WDFW smelt and sturgeon biologist did offer me some thoughts on why they do what they do and what might have happened this year.

I DIDN’T KNOW THIS, BUT EVEN THOUGH SMELT are anadromous like the Cowlitz’s other all-star ocean-going species — sturgeon, Chinook, coho and winter- and summer-runs — unlike those stocks they treat the river as more like one of those cheap, rent-by-the-hour hotel rooms.

“Smelt do not demonstrate spawning fidelity like salmon and steelhead,” says Langness. “They sort of go back to their natal estuary, but not necessarily back to the site where their parents spawned.”

There are a lot of options below Bonneville, including the big river itself, and while most smelt in the Columbia system do indeed head for the Cowlitz, this year’s water conditions might have been a turnoff in their fickle little heads.

“The exact reasons for smelt not to always favor the Cowlitz River are not clear, but probably are due to various environmental factors,” Langness says, pointing to fellow fishery biologist Joe Hymer’s suggestions that they could have been too timid because of “dropping flows, high turbidity, and low water temps.”

On Feb. 25, the river at Castle Rock at the top of the dipping zone, was running at 12,500 cubic feet per second, or about 2,500 cfs above average.

Water temps two days later at Mayfield Dam were reported as 42.8 degrees, which is on the lower end of their comfort range for getting between the sheets of water. As for turbidity, when I passed over the I-5 bridge Saturday morning on my way to Vancouver the Toutle River looked as silty as ever, and was running about 2,000 cfs above average, perhaps dumping more muck than usual into the Cowlitz.

Anyway, smelt are unlike salmon and steelhead in another way in that they don’t dig redds or check into hatcheries.

They’re like walleye and sturgeon — broadcast spawners, and in a brawny river like the Cowlitz you can imagine what happens to their tiny eggs and the hatchlings that emerge from them up to four weeks later.

“The small smelt larvae can be blown out of the Columbia River and into the ocean with their yolk sac still intact,” says Langness. “That month or so of egg development, hatching, and larval migration is not much in-printing time. A fair amount of the smelt run spawns in the mainstem Columbia River, so the smelt we saw in the commercial catch might not have even gone into another tributary like the Lewis River.”

SPEAKING OF COMMERCIAL CATCHES, a few dippers were cranky that the fleet got first crack at the smelt instead of bankies, but that was also to help gauge the run and determine that there were enough for a sport season.

The benchmark of 150 pounds per landing was met during the fifth comm opener (the first yielded precisely one smelt) on Feb. 16, when seven net boats brought in 2,633 pounds, or 376 pounds apiece on average.

Somewhere around that point I did a double take as I walked past the seafood counter at a store near my house north of Seattle — Columbia River smelt were for sale.

Heck, that’s a good sign, I thought, though I did not buy any because, well, I’ve been there and done that, nor do I need sturgeon bait.

However, commercial catches quickly began to decline.

An opener on the 20th saw eight boats bring in half as many pounds overall, but still enough to clear the 150-pound mark. The next day WDFW put out word that there would a very limited opener the following Saturday, but two days later seven boats landed just 468 pounds, or 68 pounds each.

Still, that might have just meant the smelt had entered the trib, where commercials can’t fish. Two days before the opener there were good signs on the Cowlitz — seagulls and sea lions were observed, though it was uncertain if there were actually smelt in the river.

“The expectation was for those fish to move up to the Cowlitz River  a little before or in time for the sport opener,” says Langness. “Obviously, from the tribal monitoring and this past Saturday’s sport fishery, this didn’t happen.”

An estimate on how many smelt were dipnetted last weekend wasn’t immediately available, but according to ODFW data, through the end of February, commercial fishermen had brought in 5,090 pounds.

That’s slightly more than in 2016, when Cowlitz dippers filled their buckets with 141,050 pounds.

Judging from after-action reports in the Centralia Chronicle and The Columbian, last Saturday’s haul will be well shy of that, but it will be awhile before biologists can confirm their forecast of 3 million pounds, where 2011’s and 2012’s runs came in at.

A WFDW GRAPH SHOWS ESTIMATED SMELT RUNS AND HARVESTS SINCE 2010’S ESA LISTING. (WDFW)

That will involve collecting larvae in the Lower Columbia.

“The total larval outflow will tell us a minimum spawner estimate, regardless of the distribution of the spawning activity in time or location,” says Langness. “Also, the larval densities reflect the level of spawners in the river, four to five weeks earlier, which means we can see the temporal pattern of the spawning run.”

That will offer clues to why this year’s return misaligned with that brief opener.

THIS DIDN’T USED TO BE A PROBLEM.

Once upon a time, when onshore and offshore fish habitat was in better shape, smelt dipping was open year-round on the Columbia and its tributaries, with daily limits of 20 pounds, meaning fishermen could spread out across time and space instead of focusing on a narrow window of opportunity.

Commercial catches are listed as annually 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 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and there was no opener for three winters in a row starting in 2011.

WDFW orchestrated a way around that federal listing with limited “research fisheries” the past four years, and 2017’s will go down as proof that, yep, there ain’t a lot of smelt anymore, unlike the good old days, which many were left to remember last Saturday as they gathered on the banks of the Cowlitz, instruments in hand, but glum looks on their faces because there wasn’t much reason to play.

“It’s just a bunch of people paddling the river with nets,” Kevin Thayer of Longview told a reporter.

Fishing was a bust, but still, it helped to preserve a tradition, as well as keep focus on a stock in trouble. And those are pretty important too.

Meanwhile, biologists will keep an eye out just in case some tardy smelt arrive, which happened in 2014.

“Is the run just late? Well, there have been peaks in March, but this is somewhat rare,” Langness says. “We will just have to monitor the situation for the next few weeks.”

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