Cowlitz River smelt fishing

Columbia River smelt caught in the Cowlitz River
Photo by WDFW

A new law requiring Washington fishers to possess a recreational fishing or shellfishing license to fish for freshwater smelt, crawfish, and carp goes into effect June 6, 2024. For more information, see the smelt fishing regulations.

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 (ESA) in 2010, fisheries do not occur every year. Please stay tuned to this page, our newsroom, and the emergency fishing rules for updates.

More detailed information is available in the Washington and Oregon Eulachon Management Plan, updated in Sept. 2023.

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. Recreational fishing did not occur during 2023, but multiple openers were approved for 2024.

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.

More information on federal recovery plans for eulachon is available on the NOAA website.

Current smelt season

Eulachon smelt is closed. Fishery managers will continue to monitor the run to determine if additional fishing days can be supported. For future updates, please visit this webpage, our newsroom and emergency rules.

March 1: Additional one-day smelt fishery announced for Cowlitz River on Tuesday, March 5

Map of the designated portion of the Cowlitz River open to dip-netting smelt from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5.
Map of the designated portion of the Cowlitz River open to dip-netting smelt from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5.

Frequently asked questions:

Q: Why was the fishery open on a weekday rather than the weekend?

A: Following the initial opener on Feb. 15, fishery managers continued to monitor the run in the Cowlitz River to determine if additional fishing days could be supported. In-season monitoring indicated the run was large enough to support a second recreational opening, however the timing of this observation did not provide ample notice for a weekend opportunity.

Additionally, the Cowlitz River Bridge (A St. Bridge) in Castle Rock was closed from Friday, March 1 to Sunday, March 3. This closure, in combination with a proposed weekend opportunity, would cause significant traffic delays and create challenges for emergency response services in the area.

To increase both access and harvester opportunity for a weekday opening, WDFW extended the upstream boundary to the mouth of the Toutle River and adjusted the hours (1 p.m. to 6 p.m.) of the recreational opening to accommodate an afternoon fishery.

Q: Will there be another smelt fishery in 2024?

A:  Eulachon smelt is closed for 2024. Fishery managers monitor the run to determine if fishing days can be supported in 2025. For future updates, please visit this webpage, our newsroom, and emergency rules.

Q: How many smelt were harvested during the Feb. 15 and March 5, 2024 openings?

A: Preliminary estimates for the Feb. 15 opener indicate 8,600 dip-netters harvested nearly 54,000 pounds of smelt during the five-hour fishery. Approximately 40 citations were issued by WDFW Enforcement, with over 600 pounds of smelt seized. During the March 5 opening, WDFW estimates 4,600 dip-netters harvested nearly 1,400 pounds of smelt during the five-hour opening. Enforcement issued citations to closed season dip-netters on the Lewis River, seizing approximately 70 pounds of smelt.

Q: Why are dead/expired fish on the banks of the rivers?

A: Each year, smelt return to the Columbia River and surrounding tributaries to spawn, however they die after spawning. They are not sick, and this is a natural and normal event that indicates a strong run.


Cowlitz River smelt dipping
Photo by WDFW

License requirement

A new law requiring Washington fishers to possess a recreational fishing or shellfishing license to fish for freshwater smelt, crawfish, and carp goes into effect June 6, 2024.

A license will not be required to fish for carp in Moses Lake and Vancouver Lake.

Current fishing or shellfishing licenses, including temporary licenses, will be valid and existing license holders will not see any increased costs. Those 14 years and younger do not need a fishing license.

Visit the fishing license types and fees webpage for additional licensing information.

Why is a license required?

The license requirement aims to improve compliance with fishing regulations. This requirement will also provide education on appropriate gear, seasons, and species-specific limits, particularly in areas where fish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or state Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) are present.

Implementing a license requirement serves multiple purposes: it aids in regulation and monitoring of ESA-listed eulachon, also known as Columbia River smelt; increases compliance with rules regarding the retention of native and non-native crawfish; and helps enforce regulations against illegal fishing for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in overlapping fisheries involving carp.

Why is a license required for Columbia River smelt?

Columbia River smelt are listed as a threatened species under the ESA and licensing requirements are needed to provide angler education and allow for better regulation and monitoring to help achieve population recovery goals.

Visit the crawfish or carp webpages for more information about this license requirement.

Columbia River smelt regulations

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.

Each harvester must be actively participating and is required to use a separate container to hold their catch, which must be either in their presence or marked with their name.

It is unlawful to harvest smelt from a vessel.