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.
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.
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.