Whenever smelt dips open along the Cowlitz River, thousands turn out to catch a bucket of the small silver fish.
Part of the dip’s popularity is that smelt are one of the only species of fish that Washingtonians can catch without a fishing license. A bill going through the state Legislature could change that.
House Bill 1226 would require a recreational fishing license to catch freshwater smelt, crawfish or carp — the only three species currently exempt from the license requirement. The bill was passed by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Jan. 27 on a 6-5 vote along party lines.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, but the change was a request from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fish and Wildlife officials said the license would help educate the public and regulate the small but intense windows for smelt dipping.
“Not having a license gives this idea that it is a free-for-all and it’s not. This is still a federally protected species,” said Laura Heironimus, who leads the smelt and sturgeon unit for WDFW. “It would be an opportunity for anyone participating to read about the license, see the information and the rules for participating in the fishery.”
There were 16,000 people who dipped for smelt during the one day the run was open last March. There were 169,000 pounds of smelt caught, meaning the average was slightly above the legal limit of 10 pounds per person. The average is skewed by the “gross violators” who tried to fill vehicles with smelt, but Heironimus said it was common for people to accidentally go over the weight limit.
The license requirement would not be in place for any dips this spring. Children 14 and younger would not need to get a fishing license, though they do still need to follow the 10-pound limits.
For most people who went over the limit, Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers provide weigh-in stations for the catches and verbal warnings. Heironimus said the department needed the requirement more for the frequent or extreme violators, who can escape punishment by claiming ignorance about the limits.
“We know at least 70% of those people did not have a fishing license. The challenge is being able to hold them accountable in court,” Heironimus said.
Fish and Wildlife enforcement issued 51 citations in 2022 and seized more than 2,000 pounds of illegally caught smelt.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, voted against the bill when it came to the Agriculture Committee. Orcutt is very familiar with the local popularity and family traditions of smelt dipping on the Cowlitz River.
Orcutt said he felt the license requirement would be less effective than other methods of educating the public, such as sending out more Fish and Wildlife officers to the sections of the river where smelt dips are most common.
“A license isn’t going to stop somebody from doing those sorts of things. If people don’t know the limit, then when you put out the notice, you put out the educational information too,” Orcutt said.
Fish and Wildlife officials cited different concerns for the other two species that would be added to the license requirement. There are three species of invasive crawfish in Washington, so the license process would help provide education about how fishermen can avoid spreading those species to new bodies of water.
When it came to carp, enforcement officials had reported issues going after suspected illegal salmon fishers who claim to be catching carp instead, an alibi that was tough to challenge.
HB 1226 is currently under review by the House Rules Committee before a potential vote on the House floor.