Columbia Smelt Run Makes Rare Appearance At Bonneville

This year’s Columbia smelt run is continuing its weird ways. After providing a surprise dipnetting opener on the Sandy River last week, at least 1,908 have been counted at Bonneville Dam, a rare appearance suggestive of … well, something anyway.


It’s the first time the oily fish also known as eulachon have been recorded at the dam since 2014, when 16.6 million pounds worth were estimated to enter the Columbia, the second largest run since 2011 and the ESA listing, but they are historically known to go as far as the Hood and Klickitat Rivers.

So what does it all mean?

First guess is that 2023’s smelt run is a strong one – and maybe not just in terms of 8- to 10-inch, 2.65-ounce fish being able to power themselves 144 miles upstream of the ocean to reach the lowest dam on the Columbia, even with a little push from the tides and a healthy fear of accompanying sea lions.

You won’t find smelt stats in a traditional Columbia DART or Fish Passage Center query that so many anglers use to track the progress of spring Chinook, steelhead, coho, sockeye and shad runs, but they are recorded in FPC’s incidental smolt catch data page.

There, information is collected on a wide range of species that are captured while biologists monitor outmigrating smolts.

This year’s data for the Bonneville Dam PH2 station shows that 361 smelt have turned up so far this month at the dam, 1,547 in March, with all of the fish arriving since Sunday, the 26th. Subsequent to that, anglers plunking for springers reported thick skeins of smelt streaming past.

Most of the eulachon have reportedly been observed in the dam’s smolt bypass system, but some have been seen in the navigation locks.

In 2014, the last time smelt were there, only 455 were counted. Prior to that, two were counted in 2001, one in 2004. Data goes back to 1997.

The last time there was a dipnetting opener on the Sandy was in 2015, when no smelt were counted at Bonneville. This year also saw no Cowlitz opener, though one had kinda been expected given the forecasted return.

Other species tallied this year in the Bonneville incidental smolt catch program include three-spine stickleback (64), yellow perch (45), Siberian prawn (34), bluegill and pumpkinseed (eight), banded killifish and northern pikeminnow (six each), sculpin (four) and peamouth and chum (two each).

Stay tuned!