Washington Smelt Licensing Bill Sent To Floor Of Senate

Update, 10:15 a.m., Wednesday, February 21, 2024: Following more test dipping, WDFW staffers say they won’t be recommending a smelt dip for this weekend. They reporting finding “some fish in the (Cowlitz) but not much and dipping will be tough.” Monitoring will continue, however, in hopes of being able to hold a second opener.

As Washington smelt managers continue to test the Cowlitz this week to see if enough of the skinny little fish are running upstream to hold another opener – more on that below – a bill that would require dippers to have a fishing license advanced to the floor of the state Senate.

House Bill 1226 received a bipartisan do-pass recommendation yesterday from the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee and was placed on second reading by the Rules Committee today.


Anglers who already have a fishing license (as well as youths 14 and under) wouldn’t need to buy one to dip for smelt, nor would it increase the price of the ticket to ride.

But those without one would have to get the annual freshwater license (resident: $29.50; nonresident: $84.50), combo, one-day ($11.35; $20.15) or other permit to take part in the occasional fishery.

WDFW has argued that given that Columbia system smelt, or eulachon, are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and that some 70 percent of tickets handed out during a 2022 dip were to those who did not have a license, requiring one would lead to a better understanding of the daily limit and other regulations.

That could also help close a court loophole where citations for overlimits can get thrown out because scofflaws claim they didn’t know how many could be kept, agency smelt lead Laura Heironimus told lawmakers when HB 1226 came up last year. She said a licensing requirement would “demonstrate our ability to manage this fishery effectively” and in “a more orderly and sustainable” way.

While a lot of energy has gone into writing the updated smelt management plan and getting federal buy-in to hold limited fisheries when enough are running, a license requirement would not exactly lead to a financial windfall for WDFW.

A legislative fiscal note estimated that requiring smelt dippers as well as crawfish and carp anglers – who are also covered by the bill – to license up would yield on the order of $55,000 annually, a drop in the proverbial bucket for an agency with a 2023-25 operating budget of just under $724 million.


Because the Senate committee on Monday afternoon adopted amendments from Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline), if HB 1226 now passes the full Senate, it would have to go back to the House – where a clean version passed in late January on a pretty much party line 56-39 vote – for concurrence or further tweaking.

Salomon’s amendments centered around adding legislative statements of need around why licenses are necessary, as well as exempting Moses and Vancouver Lakes from carp licensing requirements.

The latter was in response to concerns from locals and lawmakers. Requiring licenses for carp angling elsewhere would help combat folks claiming to fish for the overgrown goldfish when in fact they’re after salmon or steelhead.

Tom McBride, WDFW’s legislative liaison, told the Senate committee that the agency could work with the two lake exemptions. He also offered their “strong support” for the bill.

If HB 1226 is signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee, it would go into effect 90 days after the end of this legislative session, or early June, assuming lawmakers wrap up on March 7, as currently scheduled.

NOW, TO THE REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION you’re actually here for: Enough with all the legislativese already, Andy, when will there be another smelt dip?!?

“We did some test dipping in the Cowlitz River today and found that the smelt numbers are dropping off,” reported Heironimus at midafternoon on Tuesday. “We’re going to do some test dipping again tomorrow, but if it doesn’t change, we will likely not have smelt around for a weekend fishery.”

The good news is that there’s still plenty of room in WDFW’s 5 percent harvest rate to provide for another opener, so Heironimus says biologists will be watching the water closely to try and match that placeholder with good smelt abundance.

“There are still fish in the mainstem Columbia River, so there’s always a chance they’ll start coming back in again later,” she notes. “Just a reminder that these fish can spawn anywhere in the Lower Columbia or move on to other tributaries to spawn.”

Last year saw a good late push that led to an opener on Oregon’s Sandy and even some smelt reaching as far upstream as Bonneville Dam, but the release of hatchery spring Chinook smolts down the Cowlitz nixed dipping on the Southwest Washington tributary when eulachon came in.

The 2024 Columbia smelt run is “expected to be similar to or slightly lower in magnitude than the 2023 return of 17 million pounds.”

Recent commercial smelt test fishery results from the lower end of the big river have declined since a spike earlier this month, dropping from an average of 500 to 1,100 pounds per landing on February 5, 7, 8 and 12, to 163, 377 and 57 pounds on February 14, 15 and 19, respectively.

Test fishing helps gauge when to hold sport openers.

Speaking of, as our MD Johnson reported over the weekend, last Thursday’s five-hour opener saw an estimated 8,600 dippers scoop up 54,000 pounds worth of smelt. Best action was close to Castle Rock.

Six hundred pounds of that 54,000 were also seized for various violations, including a few who were dipping above the upper boundary. That mark is the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp, located about 1,300 feet upstream of the Highway 411/A Street Bridge in Castle Rock. Heironimus told Johnson that WDFW was going to work on figuring out how to help folks better understand the open area.