It appears an extremely strong run of smelt is moving up the Columbia River.
“It didn’t come as a surprise that the smelt run is good, and there have been times in the past when they’ve almost disappeared only to come back strong again,” said Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist.
“What is surprising is the lateness of the smelt run, and they’ve been in the Cathlamet area for a couple weeks before they decide to move upstream,” Hymer said. “Now they’ve gone everywhere. We’ve actually seen them in Toutle, Kalama, Lewis and Sandy rivers, and quite a few of them have also spawned in mainstem Columbia and up near Bonneville (Dam).”
While the Columbia smelt return looks very good, catching the once popular fish is off limits since they were added to the Endangered Species Act listing in the spring of 2010.
That means even touching them is a no-no, and state Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers have been citing people.
Dead spawned out smelt have been seen littering the banks of the Columbia and the Cowlitz rivers with birds and sea lions gorging on the oily baitfish.
“There are still some heading upstream, but it looks like most have already moved into rivers,” Hymer said. “They may have been a little more easy to spot this season with the fairly low and clear water, and that may make a little difference. In some areas there have been a lot of dying smelt with some doing the death spiral in the water.”
State Fish and Wildlife enforcement has been seeing many people coming into contact with smelt, and some are brazenly taking advantage of the good return.
“There have been some people who’ve (illegally) targeted them,” Hymer said. “Some have gotten bored bored with slow steelhead fishing, and put a clam net on a limb to (illegally) catch smelt. One person was actually dipping smelt. We’ve also seen kids and people picking them up by hand along the shoreline.”
Hymer said one person with a smelt dipping net caught a little more than 200 smelt and was caught by fisheries enforcement.
“Another person picking up trash along the waterfront also decided to pick up some smelt and somehow ended up with 22 pounds and a ticket from fisheries enforcement,” Hymer said. “You simply can’t possess any fresh live or dead smelt period.”
“One decent return doesn’t make a recovery, and now that they’re listed there needs to be a criteria to delist them,” Hymer said. “It would take awhile to have any changes.”