Smelt are now being smoked for snacks as well as prepared for sturgeon bait after today’s five-hour opener on the lower Cowlitz.
WDFW reports that dippers enjoyed the most success between Gearhart and Lexington, while few were caught in the Castle Rock area.
“Effort was pretty high considering it was a weekday, but catch rates were variable depending on how close the fish were running to shore,” said biologist Laura Heironimus after dipping ended for the day.
“In some areas we saw folks get their limit in a few minutes, in other areas it took them longer,” she added.
Northwest Sportsman contributor MD Johnson termed it “really REALLY fun.”
He and wife Julie came over from Cathlamet and after a good breakfast at the Pancake House in Longview they began dipping.
“Got to Gearhart Gardens ramp up from Highway 432 Bridge about 0830 and done by 0930 or so. Lots of people, but not crazy busy. My kind of dipping exactly — one … none … one … none … none … none … two … one … none,” he reported.
“Best dip I had I think I got four. Ten pounds happens pretty quick,” Johnson added.
The opener was announced on Monday after commercial netting last week suggested good numbers of smelt were making their way up the mainstem Columbia towards the Cowlitz, their primary spawning stream.
Another comm fishery this week yielded deliveries averaging 308 pounds, more than twice the benchmark for considering a rec opener.
“Down at Gearhart, the sex ratios were roughly 50:50 male:female throughout the day — females were ripe and most had not yet spawned,” said Heironimus. “Everywhere upstream, males dominated the catch, but females started to move in later during the day.”
Dipping was open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. 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.
The daily limit of 10 pounds fills about a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket.
“They were incredibly nice AND the biggest smelt we’ve ever seen. Average was probably 7 inches, with some legit fish measuring up to 9 and 10 inches,” Johnson said.
He also noted the presence of WDFW staffers and game wardens.
“We had several enforcement officers on patrol but most anglers were following the set catch limits and overall we didn’t see too many issues,” said Heironimus.
With smelt listed under the Endangered Species Act, WDFW took a conservative approach in picking Friday instead of Saturday for the opener to limit effort and overall catch, but it could yield enough information to consider another day of dipping.
“Overall I think the day went fairly smoothly and most anglers were pretty happy with their catch,” Heironimus added.
In a time of depressed salmon and steelhead runs and even as some were angry with the opportunity not being on a Saturday, the shimmering scales of smelt represented a glimmer of hope as well as brought the community together on the banks of a river to witness one of nature’s wonders and keep an old winter tradition alive.
“Excellent weather. Lots of families with little ones. Like dove hunting, only with smelt. I LOVE the social aspect of smelt dipping,” said Johnson.