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Wanted: a Bounty on Salmon Killing Fish

by Jeff Barnard
The Napa Valley Register, May 12, 2006

CHINOOK LANDING, Ore. -- On his first cast of the northern pikeminnow season this year, Jim Walker pitched a black and silver lure resembling a baby salmon into the dark green waters of the Columbia River and -- BAM! -- hooked a 24-inch fish with a $4 bounty on its head.

"I thought we were really going to get into them,"' the 73-year-old retired manufacturing supervisor from Troutdale said from his boat in the Columbia River. "We didn't hook another one all day."

For bounty fishermen, size means nothing, numbers are everything, and there is no such thing as catch and release when it comes to the most voracious predator on baby salmon in the Columbia Basin -- the northern pikeminnow.

As long as they are 9 inches long, the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power generated by federal hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin, pays $4 apiece for the first 100 fish, $5 apiece for the next 300, and $8 for every one after that.

There are also more than 1,000 $500 bonus fish, marked with a wire through the dorsal fin, scattered through the 450 miles of the lower Columbia and Snake rivers in the bounty zone to attract more fishermen and help biologists estimate the impact of what is believed to be the only bounty fishing program in the country.

Fishermen have to turn in the pikeminnows to claim the bounty. The fish are then ground up into fertilizer. Pikeminnows are not good eating; they are bony and the flesh is mushy and has little flavor.

Folks who really work at the program, 12 to 18 hours a day and seven days a week, can gross $20,000 during the May to October season. Two of the 1,800 people who sent in vouchers more than once last year got paid close to $40,000 each.

"It does take a lot of work, and it does take some knowledge to really catch 'em consistently," said Tim Caldwell, 46, of Cascade Locks, who was 10th on the money list with $19,084 for 2,425 fish, two of them bonus fish. "I'm after it for the money. If it just comes to fishing for myself, I'd rather be fishing for salmon or walleye."

Caldwell has been bounty fishing since the program started in 1991, full-time for the last three years. His best day was 141 fish, but it was no casual outing -- up at 2 a.m. and fishing until 10 p.m.

"For some people this gets pretty competitive," he said. "There's been problems with people where they want to fight over spots to fish. I mean bad enough to get the police involved. I've actually had my life threatened."

The "sport reward fishery" -- the folks running it don't like the term bounty fishing -- brought in 241,000 northern pikeminnows last year as part of the program, which is financed by BPA to make up for harm caused salmon by the network of federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

"A bounty is when you are trying to exterminate a species," said Russell Porter, spokesman for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which coordinates the program for BPA. "We're not trying to do that. We're trying to restructure it.

"They are a native fish. They are part of the ecosystem. But with the advent of the dams, salmon smolts (the young salmon migrating to the ocean) became easy food for the fish."

The dams slow down the river, and bunch up the salmon, giving the pikeminnows a better shot at dinner. And the salmon that go through turbines or over the spillways are sometimes stunned, making them easier prey.

In 1980 Congress gave BPA responsibility for mitigating the harm to salmon from the dams. Researchers found that of all the big fish eating little salmon on their migration to the ocean, the northern pikeminnow was the champ, far out-gobbling smallmouth bass and walleye.

A big pikeminnow -- they max out about 25 inches -- will eat a half dozen baby salmon a day.

Now BPA spends $3.8 million a year keeping them in check.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Tom Friesen figures bounty fishing has cut pikeminnow predation by 22 percent, which translates to about 3.8 million baby salmon, or about 2 percent of all the baby salmon that swim down the Columbia to the ocean each year.

That hasn't been enough to keep 14 populations of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead off the threatened and endangered species lists, but it helps. That 2 percent translates into 76,000 adults coming back to spawn. An economic impact report estimates the extra fish generate $2.7 million to $9.9 million and 446 jobs from Alaska to California.

The official Web site,, has plenty of tips for beginners, but "the main thing is to stick with it," said Paul Dunlap, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife technician who checked in Ocean's fish.

When it comes to size, Caldwell prefers the little ones, as long as they're big enough for the bounty.

"You get a lot more of those in your cooler," he said. "And they're easier to reel in."

Related Sites:

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Wanted: a Bounty on Salmon Killing Fish
The Napa Valley Register, May 12, 2006

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