Cowlitz River smelt fishing

Columbia River smelt caught in the Cowlitz River

There will be no recreational smelt fishing opportunities in 2023; learn more in our blog post.

The southern distinct population segment (DPS) of eulachon, commonly referred to as "Columbia River smelt," supports a popular recreational fishery in Southwest Washington. These small, silver fish are known for their oily texture and represent one of the few dip-net fisheries in Washington.

Because these smelt were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010, fisheries do not occur every year. Though hundreds of millions of eulachon can return to the Columbia River -- and then to tributaries such as the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers -- the run is not always able to support recreational fishing. Each year, fishery managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) monitor the smelt run to estimate the size of the return and whether a fishery can be opened. There was no recreational fishing for Columbia River smelt in 2018 or 2019, though fishing was able to resume on the Cowlitz River from 2020-2022.

Smelt generally begin returning to the Columbia River in the early part of the year, and the peak run timing varies. In past years, fisheries have typically opened anytime from early February to early March. These fisheries are brief -- often just a single day, or even just a few hours -- and can be announced only a few days before the opener is set to take place.

These short fisheries are necessary to minimize the impact on this sensitive population, even in years when the fish return in large numbers. Managers evaluate and estimate the catch from any recreational fishing openers, and determine if the run is still returning in sufficient numbers, and may announce additional fishery openings.

Current smelt season

On Friday, March 16, WDFW fishery managers announced there would not be a recreational smelt dipping opportunity on the Cowlitz River for 2023. More information is available in our blog post


Smelt in bucket

It is unlawful to fish for, retain, or possess eulachon (Columbia River smelt) in any river unless specifically open under emergency regulation.

When the smelt fishery is open, each dip-netter may retain 10 pounds of smelt per day, with no more than one day's limit in possession. All smelt caught must be retained up to the daily limit.

Ten pounds is about a quarter of a 5-gallon bucket.

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.

No fishing license is required to dip net for smelt in freshwater when the fishery is open.