CASTLE ROCK — A highly anticipated sport smelt dipping opening on the Cowlitz River on Wednesday wound up providing thousands of people with pleasant views of the river but not much else.
Coming on the heels of a successful one-day opening on Valentine’s day, word had spread far and wide about this week’s special fishery that doesn't even require a license. But with dippers lining the banks from Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Launch in Castle Rock down to Gearhart Gardens at the mouth of the Cowlitz River and packs of sea lions passing by in procession it quickly became apparent that everyone had shown up except the smelt.
According to stats provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the five-hour smelt dip opening on Feb. 14 brought in an estimated haul of 35,000 pounds, or about 400,000 of the petite fish. Although no official tally was available by Wednesday evening, the new numbers are far more likely to come in at dozens of pounds and hundreds of individual fish.
“Everywhere is dead,” said Trevor Barker, a scientific tech for WDFW who was surveying dippers on Camelot beach on Wednesday morning. “It didn’t take long for everyone to figure out that there weren’t any fish around at all.”
Whereas dippers were regularly reaching their ten-pound limit on Valentine’s day, Barker said he checked about 100 people on Wednesday and counted only four fish. Barker expressed gratitude for the good-natured responses he received from the frustrated masses as he conducted his scientific survey of turnout and harvest.
"It's not like salmon or steelhead fishing where if they don't get anything it's the end of the world," he explained.
While checking his phone for updated harvest numbers, Barker excitedly told a story he’d heard through the grapevine. The story involved a man without waders who walked out to the middle of the river near Gearhart Gardens early in the morning and netted three pounds of smelt. Barker said that effort made the fabled dipper the unofficial, and unrivaled, netting champion of the day.
“He was one tough guy. That’s all anyone will talk about on my phone,” said Barker.
A family of immigrants from Moldova who made the trek to Cowlitz County from their home in Tacoma in order to try their luck along the bank and wound up with nothing to show.
“The view is good but the fishing not so much,” said Uri, the father, through Nina, his daughter and interpreter. “If there is no fish today maybe they could open it up for another day when there are fish. We would be really grateful.”
While Uri’s son David paddled the water to no avail, the patriarch explained that he had no experience with smelt in Moldova because the rivers are all too small. He noted that he first learned about the unique fishery from his son-in-law.
That explanation seemed to jive with the Barker’s experience while checking nets and buckets.
“All of the different languages, I don’t know that a guy could keep track of it,” Barker noted. “I think they talk about it at church or something. It’s amazing how fast the word gets around and all of a sudden you’ve got all these people on the river that you’ve never seen fishing before.”
The barking armada of sea lions seemed like a good sign at first, since they typically follow schools of smelt upriver, but it didn’t seem to mean much on Tuesday. Some dippers argued that the water was too low and too clear after a relative dry spell and funneled all the fish into the deep center channel of the river.
One duo of anglers from Olympia tried to test that theory out by casting flies into the middle of the river in an attempt to reel in some of the slippery smelt.
“I know it sounds crazy but we’re trying to catch smelt,” said Hunter Bowers as he worked his fly flipping technique with sea lions breeching nearby. “You just can’t get far enough out there with a net.”
Bowers swore he’d had success using the technique before on other rivers but he and his understudy, Tristen Bowers, appeared to have no more luck than the common dippers on Wednesday.
Bob McCormick of Adna offered another theory as more sea lions bobbed upstream and yet another empty bucket went walking away from the waterline.
“They’re allergic to people,” reasoned McCormick.