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Second Cowlitz Smelt Opener Set; 35,500 Pds. Dipped On First

Editor’s note, 3:30 p.m. Feb. 20, 2020: We can confirm an Outdoor Line report out this afternoon that there will be a second smelt opener next Wednesday, Feb. 26. Below is our original story from this morning.

WDFW is mulling another smelt opener after dippers harvested an estimated 35,500 pounds out of the lower Cowlitz in five hours late last week.

State fisheries biologist Laura Heironimus says a midweek date is being eyed, which would help to limit harvest on this Endangered Species Act-listed stock but will also again disappoint those who can’t get the day off work.

SMELT DIPPERS WORK THE GEARHART AREA OF THE LOWER COWLITZ ON THE FRIDAY, FEB. 14 OPENER. (JULIE JOHNSON)


Still, she said 4,300 dippers turned out for Friday’s opener, and that was far more than WDFW Region 5 Capt. Jeff Wickersham estimated would.

He said he brought in all of his available officers plus some from outside the area and was “still understaffed.”

Wickersham reported that wardens seized around 500 pounds of smelt from dippers who harvested more than their 10-pound limit, which according to WDFW is about a quarter of a 5-gallon bullet.

“I think the largest overlimit for a group was a couple people with 60 to 80 pounds,” he said.

He thinks that the relative number of smelt in the Cowlitz and the pace of the dipping might have helped hold overlimits in check.

In 2015, when an estimated 11.4 million pounds worth of smelt swam up the Columbia, one Saturday opener on the Cowlitz saw over 200 people ticketed or warned about overlimits totaling 3,500 pounds, including one man with 200 pounds, according to a local newspaper report.

The thin, oily little fish also known as eulachon are primarily smoked up or used for sturgeon bait, but some fry them up too.

Wickersham acknowledged viewing a widely seen Facebook video in which individuals working together can be seen with half-full dipnets filling buckets to the brim and hauling them up to nearby rigs. It drew lots of ire, some directed at immigrant communities from Eastern Europe.

Whether it’s the rare, limited opportunity to go after smelt — last Friday was the first opener since 2017 — the fact that there’s no requirement to keep each person’s catch separate from others like with razor clams, or just greed, some dippers can be pretty brazen.

The captain said that he and another officer were in full uniform in marked vehicles as they watched two people come up from the river with smelt, “change clothes and go back down” for another round.

“No excuses, it was difficult,” Wickersham said of policing the opener.

Commercial landings the day before Friday’s opener suggested a good sized jag of smelt in the Columbia. Five netboats caught 2,869 pounds worth, with deliveries averaging over 573 pounds, a strong sign of abundance.

Three boats on this Monday’s commercial opener brought in 449 pounds, or 149 pounds per delivery.

Netting helps WDFW gauge whether enough are available to consider a recreational opener on the Cowlitz. In past years the agency waited until the 150-pound benchmark was reached before opening the river. Three of the five comm fishing days have been well north of that.

SMELT FRESHLY DIPPED FROM THE COWLITZ ON LAST FRIDAY’S OPENER. WDFW SAYS THAT THE 10-POUND LIMIT FILLS ABOUT A QUARTER OF A 5-GALLON BUCKET. (JULIE JOHNSON)

Now it’s up to Heironimus and other state smelt staffers to figure out if and when another chance to dip might be set.

In the meanwhile, Capt. Wickersham is gearing up.

“If we have another one, I’ve put out the word to captains across the state that I could use some help,” he said.

Wickersham estimated that during a 2016 smelt opener, 50 wardens had been on patrol.

Essentially, the ESA listing and federal overseers’ buy-in to the “research fisheries” WDFW came up with to offer some dipping opportunity while also providing population data requires heavy monitoring of the fishery, even as it yields no revenue to the agency because fishing licenses aren’t required.

Wickersham asked dippers to respect the limits and for those who witness people going overboard to call in.

WDFW advises that if you see poaching in progress to call 911. For nonemergency poaching violations, call (877) 933-9847.

Cowlitz Dippers Net Lots Of Smelt On Opener

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)

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.

(WDFW)

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.

MD JOHNSON SHOWS OFF A SMELT TO A FELLOW DIPPER. (JULIE JOHNSON)

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.

JOHNSON AND FELLOW DIPPERS COMPARE NOTES. (JULIE JOHNSON)

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.