My first thought was that smelt dipping is just another way of saying using chewing tobacco. My second thought was it had something to do with extracting minerals from ore (like copper, silver, etc.) because this is also known as smelting. Turns out I was way off on both thoughts.
The first time I heard of dipping smelt was about 28 years ago. I worked for two bosses who decided I needed to find out what this was all about. They said, “The smelt are running on the Cowlitz!” What? OK, smelt are a small fish, the Cowlitz is a river in Southwest Washington running through Kelso. You don’t catch these fish with a fishing pole, but scoop them up in a net. That’s why it’s known as “dipping.” So we jumped in their car and ran down there. We took a net and went to the river and – nothing. Gee, that was fun. David had tried it many years ago too, without success.
I never thought much more about it, although I heard a lot of people talking about it over the years. They would say how the smelt run used to be so thick you could just go down and dip net after net of the little fishes. But over the years the run got smaller and smaller until it finally became a protected species and smelt-dipping was no longer allowed – until recently. This is the second year that limited time has been opened to allow smelt-dipping.
This past Saturday was one of those dates. We already had plans to go to Portland for the day when we heard about it, but as we drove down I-5 we could see the Cowlitz and a lot of people were out on it. David couldn’t stand it, he had to check it out so we got off the freeway and headed down to the river. It was packed with people, but many were leaving. Not only is the date set, but so is the time – you can only fish from 6am to noon and it was just before noon when we got there.
I saw a couple who looked friendly and asked if I could talk to them. Pat and Dick Lindeman are their names and they were very friendly and helpful. They even offered to let us use their equipment next weekend since there is another catch date set for February 14. They showed us their catch, which was the limit, and said they got it in only 2 scoops! Now that’s starting to sound like the stories I have heard!
If you’re wondering what to do with smelt, Dick said that he will freeze some to use for bait, smoke some, and fry some.
Another nice part about smelt-dipping is that no license is needed, just a net, a bucket, and some good shoes to slog through the mud on the side of the river. Be sure to follow the rules, take only your limit – we want to make sure we do our part to help bring this fish back to its natural run, and we can do that by fishing responsibly. And even though you don’t need a license, if you are fishing past noon you can get a ticket for that, as well as if you go over your limit.
So where will we be on Valentine’s Day? You got it – smelt-dipping!