The smelt is a small silver fish that migrates from the oceans to the freshwater of the coasts, between late winter and early spring, for the purpose of breeding. Along the cities of the Western and Eastern coasts of the United States of America (including Oregon), smelt dipping is quite popular for recreational and commercial endeavors.
The Pacific Smelt, also known as Eulachon, ranges in size from about 6 inches (15 cm) to around 10 inches (25 cm). The northern coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean see the greatest population of smelt along the West Coast. The Alaskan coast, the mouth of Nushagak River, Pribilof Islands (Bering Sea) and the Klamath River (Northern California) are prime hot spots for smelt. The tributaries of the Columbia River carry the greatest number of smelt into Oregon and Washington states. It is still widely unknown exactly how the smelt find its way and why the population of such migrating spawning fish varies so greatly among various freshwater rivers. The smelt travel around 32 km (20 miles) upstream to reach its intended spawning site.
The reason that smelt is a preferred fish extends to its nutritional value as well as its (previously) widespread availability. Smelt are rich in protein and unsaturated fatty acids (omega 3 and 6). It is amongst the only cold sea fish with a high omega 3 content. Doctors recommend eating such fish twice or three times a week to protect against cardiovascular diseases, depression, obesity and even some cancers. Furthermore, it contains a high amount of vitamins A and B along with potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus. Moreover, with the growing concerns of fish absorbing toxic substances, the smelt is still considered relatively less likely to be contaminated by hazardous substances such as mercury.
The smelt dipping is actually quite simple; it does not require a fishing rod. You need a dip net gear. Fishing is allowed from the river banks only. Due to the decreasing population of the fish, however, the fishing departments of Washington (WDFW) and Oregon (ODFW) have set up certain guidelines and rules which can be found on their respective websites.
Dating back to 1806, the journals maintained by Captain Lewis and William Clark contain recollections of the various tributaries of the Columbia River, and the river itself being flooded with smelt ready to spawn. The claims have been corroborated by old residents of the area.
Due to the heavy population of smelt, the activity of fishing smelt was an important recreational activity which would often turn into a social event. The period from the 1930’s to the 1950’s saw the 'catch of the smelt’ become an annual social gathering generating much entertainment and merriment along the banks of the Columbia River and its tributaries.
The 1980's to the 1990's saw a rapid decline in the population of smelt and other spawning fish (such as salmon). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between the years of 1945 and 2009, the population of smelt has reduced drastically from about 62 million to a mere 200,000, which classifies smelt as an endangered species. Following this startling discovery, the governments of Oregon and Washington banned fishing for smelt in 2010.
While the exact reasons for this decrease are unknown, scientists attribute it to factors like an increase of the water temperature, dams building, pollution, unregulated fishing, changing the predator vs. prey relationship, and the narrowing of the stream channels. Furthermore, the primary food of smelt is oceanic plankton, the numbers of which have rapidly declined. To add to that, the rough conditions of California have prompted predators like sea lions and seals to escape starvation by moving to the bountiful Columbia River to feast on smelt and salmon runs.
As their population gradually began to increase again, smelt dipping was made legal in the years 2014 and 2015. The State of Washington opened smelt dipping along the Cowlitz River the first two Saturdays of February, as the beginning and end of the fishing season. Similarly, the State of Oregon set the two days as the first two Saturdays of March along the Sandy River. The scheduled timings were 6 am – 12 noon with a maximum catch of 4.5 kg/10 pounds of fish per person. Close to 98 people were fined and 122 were warned for exceeding the stipulated times and attempting to catch a larger volume of fish. The year 2016 witnessed a one day smelt dipping season.