Care for a dip?

Officals reckon 54,000 pounds of smelt were harvested from the Cowlitz River. But will the season continue?

 

February 22, 2024

Julia Johnson for The Eagle

Smelt numbers were sufficient for a dip last week. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife set up a fishery between Kelso and Castle rock. Pictured here is Gordon Walling of Cathlamet on the dip.

Some people go to the ballpark for the nachos. That's me. Some go to the county fair for the Italian sausage sandwiches and elephant ears. Again, me. Y'all starting to see a common denominator here?

Some go to the Cowlitz River in southwest Washington during the month of February-at least hopefully, they're going to the Cowlitz in February-for the social aspect and carnival atmosphere that is smelt dipping. And that's precisely why I love, and I mean absolutely love, smelt dipping. It's not for the smelt; heck, I don't eat them. Fried. Smoked. I don't eat 'em. Oh, I'll use them for sturgeon bait, if we have a sturgeon season, but other than that, I'm perfectly content to either dip a few for someone who really wants them, or let the little silver fish wiggle their way upstream to bring forth the next batch of Thaleichthys pacificus.

That's fancy talk, by the way, for smelt.

And so it was that the three of us-my wife Julie, her brother Gordon, and myself-found ourselves at Gearhart Gardens on the edge of Longview on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 15, along with 8,597 other smelt hunters, hoping to capture at least a handful of the little fish. A couple days earlier, I'd gotten the word via email that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) would indeed allow a dip, if only from 8:00am to 1:00 p.m. The boundaries, they announced, would include the span between the Highway 432 bridge near Kelso, just downriver from the Gardens, upstream to the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Ramp "approximately 1,300 feet upstream of the Highway 411 / A Street Bridge in Castle Rock."

Pretty cut 'n dried perimeters, but more on that later.

Gearhart was unusually quiet for a smelt day; we'd learn later that the bulk of the action, along with the bulk of the limits, was taking place upriver, or, according to Laura Heironimus, the WDFW's smelt, sturgeon, and lamprey lead, "from the Camelot area to Castle Rock."

Arriving at the river's edge, we found ourselves working the current between Luke and Emmy Nordgaard, a father-daughter duo from Carson, and Rick Carney, the owner of Oregon Roots, an award-winning indoor-outdoor cannabis producer with headquarters in Banks, Oregon. We quickly discovered that these were absolutely wonderful people. Emmy, 14, was a hoot; out-going, always smiling, and determined, she told us, to own her own business after graduating from college.

"My one sister," she said, "is going to be a vet. And the other one is going into the medical field."

Most encouraging, I would say, coming from a sixth-grader.

Carney, as he told us, had just driven 90 minutes to dip the Cowlitz before heading up to Mount Hood to spend the day snowboarding.

"I have fresh powder waiting on me," he said. Like his daughter, he too was smiling, talkative, and friendly.

This is why I love smelt dipping. The people.

A wise and dear friend compared the "communality" of smelt dipping to digging razor clams, crabbing off the piers, and Drano Lake springers. Maybe clams and crabs, I told him, but definitely not Drano Lake springers.

"[Drano Lake] springers are dumb," I said. "Everyone's angry. I saw no angry people today. Folks smiled. Laughed. Helped each other."

Later we went to The Pancake House in Longview and bought a Vietnam vet-who had seen action in '66, '67, and '68, including the Tet Offensive-his breakfast.

"People actually looked like they were enjoying themselves," I continued. "You wanna know how many times I thought about the fact Russia just launched a nuclear weapon into space capable of knocking out our communications satellites? None. Not once. Smelt rule!"

So there you have it, but, lest you think it was all fun and games and random thoughts, I did have an opportunity to spend just a couple minutes with Heironimus of the WDFW. I asked her a few questions about the day and the future.

"We estimate about 54,000 pounds of smelt were harvested yesterday," she said. "And that was 8,600 angler trips, again, an estimate."

Angler trip, I asked?

An angler trip, she explained, are individual people involved in the fishery. She went on to explain how the WDFW, aboard boats, will travel up and down the Cowlitz counting the number of people actively deploying nets for smelt every hour throughout the whole of the open area.

"Then," she said, "we do our interviews where we ask how many people in the party, and how much [smelt] they harvested."

Eventually, thanks to the wonders of mathematics, agency personnel will arrive at "how many fish per hour per person," as an average. That number, then, will be expanded to include the entire open section of the river.

"It is an estimate," Heironimus reminded folks, "but it's not possible for us to interview all 8,600 people out there."

Perhaps Mother Nature knows why, but it always seems as if one section of the Cowlitz is more productive than another on any given "dipping day,' and this proved to be the case on Feb. 15.

"At Gearhart," Heironimus began, "we did see some limits, but it took people maybe four hours to get a limit, whereas [upriver] at Camelot during the middle of the day, we had some people get limits in about 15 minutes."

I asked Heironimus if she had any idea why one section might hold more fish on any one given day.

"Sometimes the river is just chock full of fish," she said. "Others, like [Feb. 15], you have schools of fish pushing through different sections throughout the day. And so what probably happened were fish moved during the night and had passed by the lower section of the river and were moving into that upper section by the time the fishery started."

Unfortunately, law enforcement issues often go hand-in-hand with these once-a-year smelt dipping opportunities, and 2024 was no different.

"We didn't have any issues at Gearhart," Heironimus said. "But when I checked with law enforcement this morning, they did have some issues further upriver."

Wildlife officers, the lead explained, handed out approximately 40 citations and seized about 600 pounds of smelt from people. One of the violations, she went on to explain, was with people fishing above the open area in Castle Rock.

Julia Johnson for The Eagle

Emmy Nordgaard of Carson with her trophy eulachon.

"We're going to be working on improving our website to help inform people about what the open area is. I'm talking to our enforcement team and discussing better signage or changing that open area to improve that issue. I'm certainly not trying to create a problem; people just didn't understand where the boundaries are."

The future for this season remains uncertain.

"We're looking at these numbers," said Heironimus. "The big thing is making sure these fish are still going to be in the river."

She said they plan to do test-dipping this weekend, Feb. 17-18, and on Tuesday, Feb. 20. Heironimus is concerned that if a date is set too soon, the smelt numbers won't be sufficient to catch anything.

"The river wasn't chock full like we'd hoped," she said.

Heironumus said that the WDFW would continue monitoring the fishery.

"I think there should be room for another fishery, if we can find a day when there's going to be fish in the river," she said.

 

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