Spring is still several weeks away, but signs of the changing seasons are beginning to appear throughout the state.
Bluebirds have been sighted in the Puget Sound lowlands, spring chinook salmon have begun to enter the Columbia River and smelt dippers have taken their first daily limits on the Cowlitz.
Smelt dippers may get another chance to snatch a 10-pound limit from the Cowlitz River in the days ahead if the third Saturday in February was any indication. Those who worked at it and chose the right location caught good numbers of smelt Feb. 16 as far upriver as Kelso.
"Water temperatures, river flows, and visibility are favorable and we're still seeing a lot of seals and seabirds downstream to Skamokawa," said Joe Hymer, a WDFW fish biologist. "Those are all good signs for smelt dipping. If current conditions continue, dipping could be productive during the next few Saturdays."
Smelt dipping on the Cowlitz River is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. each Saturday--and daily on the mainstem Columbia River--through March. All other Columbia tributaries remain closed. The 10-pound daily limit for the Cowlitz equates to about a quarter of a five-gallon bucket. The daily limit on the Columbia River is 25 pounds.
Weekly updates on fishing conditions are available on the department's website at wdfw.wa.gov/fish/creel/smelt. Hymer strongly recommends checking that website--and others maintained by anglers' organizations--before heading out.
"Smelt can be here today, gone tomorrow--especially in a year like this when weak returns are predicted," Hymer said. "But the best fishing is usually on the leading edge of the run, so this is a good time to dust off your dip net and watch the reports."
With water temperatures rising, other fisheries are also beginning to spring to life. During the week ending Feb. 17, seven boat anglers fishing The Dalles Pool caught nine legal-size walleye, while those fishing the Bonneville Pool were sampled with their first two keepers of the year. Fishing should be good as fish fatten up for the spawn, Hymer said.
Boat anglers fishing for sturgeon also caught a few legal-size fish--along with some sublegals--in the Bonneville Pool and The Dalles Pool that week after being frozen out for nearly a month. Few legal-sized catches were recorded below Bonneville Dam, but a survey team counted 111 boats fishing sturgeon in that area--a big increase over previous weeks. Most of the fish appear to be in the warmer Willamette River at the moment.
Did someone say spring chinook? Several springers, including an 18-pounder, have recently been reported caught by lower-Columbia anglers, signaling the start of the season ahead.
The mainstem Columbia River is open to spring chinook retention from Buoy 10 to the I-5 Bridge through Feb. 24, but will close for salmon, steelhead, and shad Feb. 25 through March 23 before new regulations for this year's fishery take effect. New seasons, approved Feb. 15 by the Columbia River Compact, are as follows:
Buoy 10 to the west power lines on Hayden Island: Salmon fishing will be open seven days per week from March 24 to April 4 with a daily limit of one hatchery adult chinook salmon.
West power lines on Hayden Island to Bonneville Dam: Salmon fishing will be open from March 16 through April 30, with a daily limit of one hatchery adult chinook salmon. Beginning March 24, the sport fishery will be closed for all species from one hour after official sunset Mondays to one hour before official sunrise Wednesdays.
Bonneville Dam to McNary Dam: Salmon fishing will be open seven days per week from March 16 through May 10 with a daily limit of two hatchery adult chinook salmon. Moreover, anglers will be limited to bank fishing only from Bonneville Dam upstream to the Tower Island power lines located about six miles below The Dalles Dam.
Anticipating a strong run of spring chinook to the upper Columbia River but weak returns to the Willamette, fishery managers agreed to direct most of the salmon fishery above the confluence of the two rivers near Portland. The mainstem Columbia River will be open for adipose fin-clipped steelhead and shad during days open for adipose fin-clipped spring chinook.
Trout anglers are advised that Little Ash Lake near Stevenson was planted with 801 catchable size rainbows Feb. 11.