Lewis and Clark's Columbia River
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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"Pacific Smelt, Columbia River"
Includes ... Eulachon ... Pacific Smelt ... Candlefish ... Cowlitz River ... Sandy River ... The Golden Age of Postcards ...
Image, 2013, Columbia River, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Glaucous-winged Gull and Pacific Smelt, Willow Grove, Washington. Willow Grove is approximately 10 miles downstream from the mouth of the Cowlitz River. Image taken March 20, 2013.


Pacific Smelt (Eulachon) ...
"Pacific Smelt" is the common name for the Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus). The small 6-9 inch fish is bluish on its upper half with silvery white sides and belly. The body is long and thin with a large mouth and skinny head.

"The eulachon is an anadromous species, leaving the ocean to ascend rivers and streams to spawn. Adults enter fresh water and spawn from February to mid-May. Typically, males enter the rivers first, followed shortly by the females. Most spawning eulachon are three years old though they can live up to five years. Spawning is done in large masses and usually during the night. The females' eggs and the males' sperm are dispersed together into the water column and the fertilized eggs quickly attach to gravel, wood or the sandy bottom of rivers. Most adults die shortly after spawning. The 7,000 to 60,000 eggs per female hatch in five to six weeks. Because of its small size the larval eulachon are rapidly swept downstream and out into the estuaries and open ocean."

Source:    Pacific State Marine Fisheries Commission, 2013, Smelt factsheet


"Candlefish" ...
The Pacific Smelt (Eulachon) is also known as the "Candlefish" or "Oilfish". When dried and fitted with a wick, the fish can be burned like a candle.

Image, 2015, Woodland Bottoms, Woodland, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Dead smelt along Columbia River, shown with 77mm Canon lens cap, Woodland Bottoms, Woodland, Washington. Nice spring day. Image taken March 4, 2015.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Bucket of Smelt, Cowltiz River, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.


Columbia River smelt runs ...
On February 24, 1806, Lewis and Clark wrote their first description of the Eulachon, the "Pacific Smelt" (Thaleichthys pacificus).

"... This evening we were visited by Comowooll the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women & children of his nation ...   The chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin some hats, stergeon and a [s]pecies of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us [Cowlitz River] by means of skiming or scooping nets. ...   I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever. they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted ..." [Lewis, February 24, 1806]

Washington's Cowlitz River and Oregon's Sandy River, both tributaries to the Columbia River, have long been famous for their smelt runs where fishermen lined the banks and could reach their limit in one dip of their nets. Unfortunately the runs have declined and the Pacific Smelt is now on the endangered list.


Gulls, Eagles, and Scaup ...

Image, 2015, Columbia at Kalama River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Gulls following the smelt run, resting on sandbar in the Columbia River at the mouth of the Kalama River. Approximately 1,000 gulls in view. Nice spring day. Image taken March 6, 2015.
Image, 2014, Lewis River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Bald Eagle with Pacific Smelt, Lewis River, Washington. Weather was gray and overcast. Image taken March 14, 2014.
Image, 2013, Columbia River, Portland, Oregon, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Lesser Scaup, female, with Pacific Smelt, Columbia River, east of the Interstate 205 Bridge, Oregon side. Weather was gray and overcast. Image taken April 9, 2013.
Image, 2013, Columbia River, Portland, Oregon, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Lesser Scaup, female, with Pacific Smelt, Columbia River, east of the Interstate 205 Bridge, Oregon side. Weather was gray and overcast. Image taken April 9, 2013.


Columbia River Smelt Company ...
Kelso Prepares for Smelt Run.

"KELSO, Wash., Jan. 1. -- (Special.) -- The Columbia River Smelt Company is erecting a new dock near the depot at Kelso to facilitate the work of handling and shipping the smelt catch during the approaching season. It is now almost time for the arrival of the fish and old fishermen expect the run to start as soon as the river rises. The fish never start their run until the river is muddied by rains. Plans are being made to open an Eastern market on a more extensive scale than last year, when shipments in refrigerated cars was made for the first time."


Source:    "The Morning Oregonian", January 2, 1915, courtesy Oregon Historic Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2016.


Penny Postcard, Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Columbia River Smelt Company, Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Penny Postcard, "Shoveling Smelt, Columbia River, Oregon.". Label on box in image says: "From The Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Wash.". Published by Louis Scheiner, Portland, Oregon. Made in U.S.A. Divided back. Card #R-28824. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.


Smelting and the Sandy River ...
"A commercial smelt fishery has operated from time to time in the Sandy River at Troutdale. The accompanying photographs [note: not included here] were taken in 1907 and 1922 respectively. In 1927 one of the outfits, Knarr and Sons, sold 53 1/2 tons of the small fish to the Bonneville Hatcheries and the following year 23 tons.

In 1957 a half million pounds of smelt were taken from the Sandy by commerical fishermen - most of them destined for cat food. Then in 1958 the smelt suddenly disappeared and did not make another run until 1971. They had returned to their former large numbers by 1977 when 800,000 pounds were taken by commercial fishermen. In 1979, the last year for which figures were available [note: 1980 publication], 600,000 pounds were taken. Ten commercial outfits operated on the Sandy during the 1977 season, among them the largest vessels were 25 foot gillnet boats, the smallest were 16 foot aluminum rowboats. The smelt do not penetrate far upstream, and the Troutdale bridge at River Mile 3.1 is the upper limit of commerical boat fishing. The runs generally last about three weeks each spring."

Source:    James E. Farnell, Ph.D., Research Analyst, 1980, "Sandy and Hood River Navigability Studies", Division of State Lands, Salem, Oregon, July 1980.


Penny Postcard, Smelt Fishing, Sandy River, Oregon
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Smelt Fishing, Sandy River, Oregon
Penny Postcard, "SANDY RIVER, Oregon". Caption on back reads: "Dip netters catching their limit of smelt, during the annual run, as the fish fight their way to their spawning grounds. This scene taken not far from Portland." Color by C.H. Ebeling. Published by Western Color Sales Inc., Portland, Oregon, #K1806. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.


Smelt Runs, Columbia River

  • Since 2010 ...
  • Since 2014 ...
  • Sandy River, 2015 ...
  • Cowlitz River, 2016 ...


Since 2010 ...
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website (2013):

"... Once so abundant they were caught by the bucket load with dip nets, eulachon numbers have dropped precipitously since the 1940s when they entered the Columbia in such large numbers they literally choked tributaries like the Cowlitz and Sandy river with tremendous silvery schools of migrating fish. Their ability to reproduce in large numbers one 6- to 8-inch adult female can produce up to 40,000 eggs is crucial to their survival since they are prey for many other species, including humans. Since NOAA Fisheries listed eulachons for protection under the ESA on May 17, 2010, biologists have begun taking a closer look at them and what it will take to protect the species. ..."

Since 2014 ...
Beginning in 2014, two half-day smelt fishing days were established on both the Cowlitz River, Washington and the Sandy River, Oregon.


Sandy River, 2015 ...

Image, 2015, Sandy River, Oregon, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelt fishing, Sandy River, Oregon. Nice spring day. Image taken March 7, 2015.
Image, 2015, Sandy River, Oregon, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelt fishing, Sandy River, Oregon. Nice spring day. Image taken March 7, 2015.
Image, 2015, Sandy River, Oregon, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelt fishing, Sandy River, Oregon. Nice spring day. Image taken March 7, 2015.


Cowlitz River, 2016 ...

Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelting, Cowltiz River at Gerhart Gardens Park, Longview, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelting, Cowltiz River, Longview, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelting, Cowltiz River, Longview, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelting, Cowltiz River, Longview, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Smelting, Cowltiz River, Longview, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Cooler of Smelt, Cowltiz River, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.
Image, 2016, Cowlitz River, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Cooler of Smelt, Cowltiz River, Washington. Overcast gray chilly day. Image taken February 6, 2016.


"The Golden Age of Postcards" ...

The early 1900s was the "Golden Age of Postcards", with the "Penny Postcard" being a popular way to send greetings to family and friends. Today the Penny Postcard has become a snapshot of history.

Penny Postcard, Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Columbia River Smelt Company, Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Penny Postcard, "Shoveling Smelt, Columbia River, Oregon.". Label on box in image says: "From The Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Wash.". Published by Louis Scheiner, Portland, Oregon. Made in U.S.A. Divided back. Card #R-28824. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.

Penny Postcard, Smelt Fishing, Sandy River, Oregon
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Smelt Fishing, Sandy River, Oregon
Penny Postcard, "SANDY RIVER, Oregon". Caption on back reads: "Dip netters catching their limit of smelt, during the annual run, as the fish fight their way to their spawning grounds. This scene taken not far from Portland." Color by C.H. Ebeling. Published by Western Color Sales Inc., Portland, Oregon, #K1806. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.


From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

Clark, February 24, 1806 ...
This evening we were visited by Comowooll the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women & children of his nation. Drewyer came a passenger in their canoe, and brought with him two dogs. The chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin some hats, stergeon and a [s]pecies of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us by means of skiming or scooping nets.    on this page I have drawn the likeness of them as large as life;    it as perfect as I can make it with my pen and will serve to give a general idea of the fish.    the rays of the fins are boney but not sharp tho' somewhat pointed. the small fin on the back next to the tail has no rays of bone being a thin membranous pellicle.    the fins next to the gills have eleven rays each.    those of the abdomen have eight each, those of the pinna-ani are 20 and 2 half formed in front.    that of the back has eleven rays.    all the fins are of a white colour.    the back is of a bluish duskey colour and that of the lower part of the sides and belley is of a silvery white.    no spots on any part.    the first bone of the gills next behid the eye is of a bluis cast, and the second of a light goald colour nearly white.    the puple of the eye is blak and the iris of a silver white.    the underjaw exceeds the uper; and the mouth opens to great extent, folding like that of the herring.    it has no teeth.    the abdomen is obtuse and smooth; in this differing from the herring, shad anchovey &c of the Malacopterygious Order & Class Clupea, to which however I think it more nearly allyed than to any other altho' it has not their accute and serrate abdomen and the under jaw exceeding the upper.    the scales of this little fish are so small and thin that without minute inspection you would suppose they had none.    they are filled with roes of a pure white colour and have scarcely any perceptable alimentary duct. I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever.    they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted, even more delicate and lussious than the white fish of the lakes which have heretofore formed my standart of excellence among the fishes. I have heard the fresh anchovey much extolled but I hope I shall be pardoned for beleiving this quite as good.    the bones are so soft and fine that they form no obstruction in eating this fish. ...




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*River Miles [RM] are approximate, in statute miles, and were determined from USGS topo maps, obtained from NOAA nautical charts, or obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, 2003

Sources:    Farnell, J.E., Research Analyst, 1980, "Sandy and Hood River Navigability Studies", Division of State Lands, Salem, Oregon, July 1980;  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website, 2013;  Pacific State Marine Fisheries Commission, 2013, Smelt factsheet; 

All Lewis and Clark quotations from Gary Moulton editions of the Lewis and Clark Journals, University of Nebraska Press, all attempts have been made to type the quotations exactly as in the Moulton editions, however typing errors introduced by this web author cannot be ruled out; location interpretation from variety of sources, including this website author.
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November 2013