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NW Fishletter #390, February 4, 2019
 Fishermen Earn $1.4M Catching 180,271 Northern Pikeminnows
It's far from a sure bet, but fishermen who know the secrets of catching northern pikeminnow in the Columbia River can actually quit their day jobs, go fishing and still earn a decent living.
Funded by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Northern Pikeminnow Management Program paid out $1.4 million last year. The top angler reeled in 8,686 pikeminnows to take home $71,049 in reward money. Three other fishermen earned more than $50,000 apiece, and the top 20 anglers caught an average of 3,400 fish and took home nearly $29,000 each. Not bad for five months of fishing.
That's not to say it's easy.
Steve Williams, senior program manager for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, said the successful pikeminnow anglers declined to talk to the media about their accomplishments, but most of them have been at it for many years. Those who haven't probably won't be as successful, but can still have fun trying.
Rewards depend on the total number of fish caught. To add incentive to keep fishing, hauls of more than 200 pikeminnows receive $8 per fish, those taking 26 to 200 fish get $6 per fish, and totals of 25 or less get $5 each. Specially tagged fish are worth $500 each.
Northern pikeminnows are native to the Columbia and Snake rivers, where they eat millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean. For nearly 30 years, fish managers have been offering incentives to fishermen who catch pikeminnows from the mouth of the Columbia to Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia, and to Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River.
Photo: Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission
Williams said studies conducted before the program started in 1991 found that by removing 10 to 20 percent of the larger pikeminnows each year, managers could reduce predation by 40 to 50 percent. And that's exactly what happened, he said.
Last year, fishermen took about 11.5 percent of the pikeminnows measuring nine inches or longer. The percentage is figured based on how many of 1,000 specially tagged pikeminnows released each year are caught, which can be used to estimate the percentage of the pikeminnow population that was removed. "We want people to turn [the tagged pikeminnows] in, and that's why we put a $500 tag on them," he said. "But the main purpose is a biological one--so we can assess where we are."
Because northern pikeminnow are native, the strategy is not to eliminate them, Williams said. The goal is to reduce their impact on juvenile salmon. One way of doing that is to reduce the number of large pikeminnows, he said, noting, "The larger the pikeminnow, the more smolts they eat."
In addition to reducing the number of northern pikeminnows preying on young salmon in the Columbia Basin, the program has also reduced their size, so there are now fewer large pikeminnows in the system, he said.
Williams sees the program as part of a balancing act designed to retain a healthy population of pikeminnows, but one that has a much lower impact on juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.
BPA spokeswoman Michelle Helms said harvest was down in 2018, even though the average catch per angler was up. "We had some pretty high river flows early in the season, and that makes it more difficult to be able to catch any," she said.
Still, more than 3,000 people registered for the 2018 reward program, which was open from May 1 through Sept. 30, and combined they spent some 23,000 angler days on the river, removing 180,271 fish, or an average of 7.52 fish per fisherman per day.
Total success was similar to recent years. In 2017, anglers hauled in 191,478 northern pikeminnows, with the top fisherman earning $83,877. In 2016, they pulled out 225,350 fish, and top fisherman made $119,341.
Since 1990, fishermen have removed nearly 5 million pikeminnows from the Columbia and Snake rivers through the program.
More information about it can be found at pikeminnow.org, where fishermen are urged to "Save a salmon (and make money doing it!)." -K.C. Mehaffey
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