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Posted By Toutle Trekker

When I was growing up, in the 1970's, January and February were "smelt watch" months.  The signs that the slippery, oily little fish had entered the Cowlitz River were (and are) pretty obvious: guls swooping low over the water and seals venturing up the rivers following the run.  My father would take us out to dip or "dig" smelt, and, with a special long-handled net with small mesh, we would fill 5 gallon buckets with the silver fish.  I think the limit was 25 pounds a day. The banks between Kelso and Castle Rock would be lined with dippers, and choice spots might produce a bucket of fish with one or two digs into the water.  The first batch of fried smelt was pretty good, like a traditional holiday food that is savored once a year.  The second batch, ok, but after a few weeks of off-and-on piles of fried smelt we were ready to get back to venison steak!  My father would also smoke the little fish whole, and I even took them smoked to school for lunch.  

But recently that has all changed.  Smelt are now listed as a "threatened" species.  Some blame the eruption of Mount St. Helens for the decline of runs, others claim overharvest or changing ocean conditions.  Still, some years there are enough fish returning from the ocean to spawn to open a day or two to public smelt dipping.   A few years back, when the season was open for a day, I made a point of taking my children out to dip smelt.  We only got enough for one "mess" but it was more cultural experience that a fishing trip.  Everyone who lives here needs to try smelt dipping at least once.  And lucky for us, today is one of those rare days with dipping allowed.  According to the WDFW the season will last between 8 am and 1 pm with 10 pounds of smelt allowed per person.  The river is open between the Hwy 423 Bridge and the Al Helenburg boat launch in Castle Rock today only.   I drove by the dippers this morning along the Cowlitz.  All the signs were there--seaguls squawking, seals and sealions far upriver, traffic jams along the shore...and lots and lots of buckets of memories.  

For additional openings and more information check out the WDFW website 
https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/wdfw-announces-additional-one-day-smelt-opening-cowlitz-river  

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