WDFW urges responsible recreation as 1-day Cowlitz River smelt opening announced

Cowlitz River - (Cowlitz County)

Photo Credit: Courtesy of WDFW

by WA Department of Fish & Wildlife Staff

OLYMPIA – Anglers will have an opportunity to dip for smelt in 2021 during a limited-opening recreational fishery on Tuesday, March 2, with officials encouraging continued responsible recreation, proper use of facial coverings, and social distancing during the event.

A portion of the Cowlitz River will be open to recreational dip netting along the shore from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for one day only.

Fishery managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have been watching the smelt run closely to determine if it could support a recreational fishery this year, and for the second year in a row the fishery will open for limited dip netting.

The fishery proved extremely popular in 2020, with thousands of dip-netters lining the Cowlitz River banks. Dip-netters caught an estimated 35,000 pounds of smelt during the first of two fishery openings last year, said Laura Heironimus, WDFW’s Columbia River smelt lead.

But that 2020 fishery took place in a very different environment. In 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to impact day-to-day life around the world, fishery managers and public health officials are urging dip-netters to recreate responsibly by wearing masks, avoiding overcrowding, and practicing social distancing.

“This fishery is very popular, and people come from all over to take part in it,” Heironimus said. “We want people to be able to get outdoors and enjoy this unique opportunity. But it’s extremely important that everyone wears a mask and gives each other space to comfortably and responsibly enjoy this fishery. There’s plenty of river for everyone.”

The portion of the river open to dip netting extends from the Highway 432 Bridge upstream to the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp, located approximately 1,300 feet upstream from the Highway 411/A Street Bridge in Castle Rock.

Kessina Lee, WDFW’s Southwest Region director, said that the Department worked alongside county officials and the Governor’s Office when making the determination to open the fishery.

“The conclusion was that this fishery could be held safely, but it requires everyone to do their part to reduce the risk of infection,” Lee said. “If you feel sick, stay home. Don’t go shoulder-to-shoulder with other people, even if they’re pulling in fish. We have to work together to make sure everyone goes home healthy at the end of the day.”

Each dip-netter may retain 10 pounds of smelt per day, with no more than one day's limit in possession. Ten pounds is about a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket. No fishing license is required to dip net for smelt in this limited fishery. All smelt caught must be retained up to the daily limit.

New this year, all individual harvesters must use a separate container to hold their catch, and the container must be in the harvester's presence or identified with the harvester's name. It is unlawful to harvest smelt from a vessel.

WDFW Enforcement officers will be out to help ensure public safety, as well as enforce the 10-pound limit and other regulations while the fishery is open.

Columbia River smelt – also known as Eulachon – were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010. Managers monitor the run to ensure there are enough fish to support a recreational opening while staying with allowable ESA limits, including the use of commercial test fisheries to help gauge the strength of the run. The recreational fishery also serves as an important opportunity to collect biological data to further assess the run.

WDFW is the primary state agency tasked with preserving, protecting, and perpetuating fish, wildlife, and ecosystems, while providing sustainable fishing and hunting opportunities.

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