Bill Requiring License To Dip Cowlitz Smelt Heard in Olympia

Quick, name the two Northwest counties with the ignominious distinction of having the most residents cited during last year’s smelt opener on the Cowlitz River – the one in which 2,800 pounds worth of overlimits of the ESA-listed fish were seized by game wardens.

If you said King County, Washington, and Multnomah County, Oregon, gold star for you!


That’s just one of the facts that the Olympia Outsider™ learned this morning as Evergreen State lawmakers dipped their toes into a proposal that would require smelters to get a fishing license before netting their 10-pound daily limit.

WDFW is hoping the legislature passes the bill because, at the prompting of overseers at the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency and ODFW are working on an updated management plan for the Columbia River fish also known as eulachon. The current plan was written in 2001, nine years before the stock was listed by the feds.

“As it currently stands, NOAA-Fisheries has not yet developed 4(d) regulations, which would prohibit or limit take on the species, but they have signaled to the department there are plans to initiate this process,” Laura Heironimus, WDFW’s smelt, sturgeon and lamprey unit lead told House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee members during a public hearing on House Bill 1226.

Creating a licensing requirement would help “demonstrate our ability to manage this fishery effectively,” she stated, and in “a more orderly and sustainable” way.


As it stands, anybody and their uncle from Seattle to Saturn can show up on the muddy banks of the lower Cowlitz when enough of the oily little fish have been adjudged to have entered the Columbia, lower their long-handled dipnet into the river, make a sweep or two, and empty the contents into a container – all without a license.

WDFW makes it pretty clear what the daily limit is when it announces openers – plus, Heironimus said, for last March’s five-hour opportunity she and her minions went “a little crazy” stapling posters in seven languages to myriad trees along the Cowlitz to reinforce the regs – but 2022’s estimated 16,000 dippers still managed to harvest nearly 170,000 pounds worth, which according to the Olympia Outsider™’s calculations means the average pail ran a wee bit heavy.

Some of that is just well-meaning people not being able to judge what 10 pounds worth of smelt looks like -– “a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket” is how WDFW states it. (What about if I show up with an old kitty litter tub? A spaghetti pot? A random doohickey?!?!)

But some of it is also scallywags “stuffing all the compartments of their truck with smelt,” as agency legislative liaison Tom McBride put it to lawmakers.

He said wardens last year issued 65 citations to the “worst offenders,” but the rub is when those tickets hit the court system.

Heironimus says they tend to get thrown out because with the lack of a licensing requirement, smelt scofflaws can say they DiDn’T kNoW tHe LiMiT. Framing it as an educational tool, she says the purchase of a license is an acknowledgement by a fisherman that there are regulations around an opportunity to pay attention to and it would lead newly papered dippers to peruse the pamphlet or other official sources for The Rules.

In theory anyway.

Questioning her and McBride, Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-Smelt Adjacent), ascertained that licensed smelters in fact also went over their limits last March. However, that occurred at much lower rates than among unlicensed dippers, 30 percent to 70 percent among those cited, according to the agency.

The Olympia Outsider™ doesn’t like to get up on his stump too often – it’s steep and slippery and his knees aren’t what they used to be – but given all of the rule-rich ESA-listed coho, Chinook, steelhead, etc., etc., etc., he’s licensed to fish for, it’s kind of bonkers shocking that the unlicensed masses can just come on down to the Cowlitz and go to town towards a somewhat nebulous limit on a federally protected and state-managed natural resource. It’s wonderful that this community tradition has been renewed and people have been reconnected to the river and the fish – absolutely wonderful, a hill I will die on – but also mystifying how practically everyone else in the state trying to catch anything with fins and/or gills needs a license and smelt dippers somehow don’t.

It screams of a bizarro-world blue law, like something from pioneer days that stated when the hay crop failed and Kelso farmers needed something else to feed their yoke of oxen and the moon was in Aquarius they could dip at will.

In fact as late as 1996 the Columbia and all its tribs were open 24/7/365 and commercial landings averaged 2.1 million pounds annually from 1938 up to 1989. Then the population crashed as Mt. St. Helens’ eruption, ocean conditions and cold river temps conspired against it. Now Washington is a state of 8 million people, McBride noted.

Another factoid WDFW dropped was that the recreational opener accounted for 76 percent of last year’s catch; some of the rest was caught by commercial netters, who are used to gauge the strength of the run and better time the sport season.

McBride indicated that the bill, if passed, would allow fishing license holders to harvest smelt without any additional buy-in: “If you have a license, you’re good to go,” he stated.

Before anyone gets on their high horse about those money-grubbing so-and-sos at WDFW just trying to find a new revenue stream with this proposed requirement, a fiscal note attached to HB 1226 estimates that given the very limited number of smelt openers we’ve seen in the recent past and the likelihood that dippers would choose the cheapest option they could – a one-day permit that would set them back about $11.35 all said and done at Freddies’ customer service counter – license sales would generate all of $55,006 annually. Hell, they can hardly even lethally remove a full pack of livestock-depredating wolves for that amount of money these days.

Ahem, but back to the licensing bill. Putting citations on a better footing in a court of law is also the idea behind ending the licensing exemption for carp anglers, which is also in 1226.

Per WDFW, when the gamies pull up, some folks apparently like to say they’re fishing for carp when caught without a license or when they are actually illegally fishing for salmon and steelhead. It gives everyone from fish and wildlife officers to prosecutors and judges headaches. Requiring a license, said Trout Unlimited’s Alexei Calambokidis in support of the bill, would make enforcement issues easier and help fish managers better gauge angler effort on Chinook, summer-runs, etc.

WDFW is also asking lawmakers to require crawfishers to get a license in an attempt to educate them about the differences between native and nonnative crayfish and not moving the latter species around.

While the TU spokesman was the only member of the public to speak on HB 1226 during the hearing, two others today signed in as pro and two said they were con.

As it stands, lawmakers scheduled the bill for an executive session next Friday and if ol’ Oly Outs had to put a nickel down, he’d bet it will pass out of its initial committee. If passed by the full legislature and signed by the governor, it would take effect 90 days after the session is adjourned, so licenses would begin to be required this summer for carp anglers and crawdad catchers and, given their winter return timing, 2024 for smelt dippers.

ALSO HAVING A PUBLIC HEARING this morning, HB 1235, which would make some changes to WDFW licensing, including pushing the age that youths are required to get a fishing license from 15 to 16 years old, allow anglers to buy a temporary license for April’s general lowland trout opener, and waive the requirement that hunter ed students complete at least 10 hours of training.

Even as essentially the same bill (SB 5552) moved through the Senate last session, this was the package’s first showing in the House, and Rep. Tom Dent (R-Hunter Ed-certified At Statehood – that’s literally his joke, not the nonpartisan Olympia Outsider™’s) questioned why the 10-hour minimum was being eliminated. He said that thanks to the program required of all hunters born after January 1, 1972, Washington’s hunter safety record is “pretty good.”

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he said.

Rachel Blomker, who framed the overall bill as directly helping her agency’s recruitment, reactivation and retention, or R3, efforts in support of the state’s $3.4 billion annual fishing and hunting economy, said among the other states it’s very rare to have an 10-hour requirement, and that the number was somewhat random. Even if it is dropped, she said there would still be hunter ed testing and field evaluations budding hunters would have to pass.

Dent insisted on safety statistics, which Blomker said she’d provide. HB 1235 is also slated for an executive session in which amendments might be offered and debated before a recommendation vote of the committee.

SO FAR NOT SCHEDULED for an executive session is HB 1215, which would fund a state grant program for voluntary riparian restoration work, guided by WDFW’s Riparian Ecosystems, Volume 2. It had a public hearing on Wednesday, and a lot of people had a lot to say about it.

Essentially and very broadly speaking, the bill is a carrot-tasting do-over of last year’s sticklike Lorraine Loomis Act, which went nowhere because of its mandatory rules around riparian areas and pushback from the agriculture community, which was caught surprised when it was dropped. This new bill saw a lot more stakeholder involvement, according to Ruth Musgrave, senior natural resource policy advisor for Governor Inslee, who requested lawmakers introduce the bill.

During the bill’s public hearing, Musgrave said there’s $100 million for it in the governor’s proposed budget, and the program could start funding some projects right away as others are vetted.

Where the tribes had been pretty excited by last year’s version – Lorraine was the chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a longtime Swinomish fisheries leader before her August 2021 passage – they generally had concerns about this bill. Where ag and other interests were against the 2022 legislation, they sounded generally more interested in HB 1215 while having concerns as well.

Speaking in favor was Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, among others.

As for other fish and wildlife related bills in Olympia right now, one that was dropped today would shift excise taxes levied on certain commercial catches from the General Fund to WDFW larders because the money “has a stronger nexus to the activities funded through the fish, wildlife, and conservation account.”

And somewhere waiting in the wings is a bill to allow Washington guides to be able to run trips below the Longview Bridge, currently the domain of Ilwaco charters and Oregon-based guides.

And that on a Friday afternoon with another blog needing writing before Beer Thirty is going to have to be all that the Olympia Outsider™ has to say about all of that.