For the first time since 2010, state Fish and Wildlife adopted a ruling Wednesday, Feb. 5 that will allow sport smelt dip-netters a chance to catch these oily, silvery fish in the Cowlitz River beginning this Saturday, Feb. 8.
Shoreline only dip-netting will be allowed every Saturday 6 a.m. to noon each day from Feb. 8 through March 1.
The daily limit will be 10 pounds per person. State fishery managers expect a catch of about 1,500 to 39,900 pounds.
A commercial season is also being considered and the Yakama Tribe is planning a smelt fishery.
Freshwater sampling of juvenile smelt production for 2014 is averaging 43-percent higher than the similar period last year.
Smelt migration is dependent on the water temperature which is currently about 41 degrees and ideal for fish passage, but the freezing weather this week could slow it down.
Bird and marine mammal activity was observed by state fisheries in the Lower Cowlitz River on Jan. 18-19. That could mean smelt had entered the river, but last weekend activity had disappeared.
By the late 1990s, smelt had dwindled dramatically to the point where National Marine Fisheries Service listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in spring of 2010. Smelt fishing has been off-limits to fishermen since 2011.
Last spring, smelt began reappearing in extremely strong numbers. A mass of smelt about 20 miles long was seen in the Columbia mainstem from Longview up to Bonneville Dam, and in the Cowlitz, Toutle, Kalama, Lewis and Sandy rivers.
There was a time when millions of migrating Pacific smelt would jam the Lower Columbia River en route to tributaries, while thousands of sport dip-netters lined the shores to catch them by the bucket loads.
Pacific smelt cover the West Coast from northern California up to the Bering Sea in Alaska. Locally, they return to spawn in late winter and early spring, and spend about three to five years in the ocean. There’s a small population that migrates into Puget Sound.