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Anglers Net Big Reward for Lowly Pikeminnow

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, December 6, 2001

BPA offers largest bounty in history for salmon predators

The largest wildlife bounty in history set a record this year when Northwest fishermen collected rewards for 240,000 northern pikeminnows.

One Eastern Washington fishing fanatic made about $35,000 during the five-month season. A handful of other fishermen collected $30,000 or more from the Bonneville Power Administration. Most of the 3,351 successful fishermen earned just a few bucks -- perhaps enough for bait and boat fuel.

In all, the BPA spent about $1 million on rewards, out of the $2.8 million it spends reducing the number of salmon-eating pikeminnows in the Snake and Columbia rivers. The rest of the money went mainly toward administering the program and scientific studies.

Northwest electricity consumers pick up the tab.

The bounty hunters use rods and reels, although the BPA sometimes hires tribal fishermen to net pikeminnows in areas with large concentrations.

"Most people aren't doing it as an occupation," said Russell Porter, program manager for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. "They're just out there a few times or they catch some (pikeminnows) while they're fishing for something else."

This year's season, which ran May 14 through Oct. 14, was especially profitable for the bounty hunters.

Most years, they earn $4 for each of the first 100 fish they turn in to check stations. After that, they earn $5 apiece for the next 300 fish. After the first 400 fish, the pikeminnows are worth $6 apiece.

Fearing that salmon were especially vulnerable in this year's drought-starved rivers, the BPA increased the bounties -- to $5, $6 and $8 -- midway through the season. About 140 anglers reached the $8 level.

In addition, the BPA offered a $1,000 prize for each of about 1,000 pikeminnows that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife captured, tagged and released in the Snake and Columbia. Those pikeminnows, which are meant to provide an incentive to get people fishing, had been worth just $50 before July 10.

One Camas, Wash., fisherman caught five tagged pikeminnows, some worth $50 and some worth 20 times more.

Wildlife bounties have a long history in America and Europe. Coyotes, magpies and cougars are among the Western animals for which governments have offered rewards.

The first wildlife law enacted in the colonies was a reward of a penny apiece for wolf hides, said Bob Ferris, vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. An old law still on the books in Colorado offers a wolf bounty, although there are no wolves left in the state. A proposal in Minnesota would offer a wolf bounty in certain areas under certain conditions.

But while rewards for dead wolves have been around longer, neither Ferris nor other experts could think of any bounty that matches the cost and catch of the pikeminnow program, which has collected 1.7 million fish since 1991.

"Yeah, but there are a lot more pikeminnows than wolves," noted Porter.

A Western Washington company turns the pikeminnows into fish meal for fertilizer and poultry food.

Kicked off as a test program in 1990 -- back then, pikeminnows were still called squawfish -- the reward program is designed to help juvenile salmon survive their river migration to the Pacific. Although funded by the BPA, it is run by the fisheries commission, with help from state wildlife agencies in Oregon and Washington.

A relative of non-native walleye and other minnows, pikeminnows are native to the Northwest. Biologists believe that dams and salmon hatcheries have artificially increased their population and allowed them to grow into larger, more destructive predators.

Hatcheries release throngs of fingerling salmon en masse. Those fish often become disoriented after going through bypass systems at each of the dams. Pikeminnows congregate below the dams, waiting to pick them off.

The slack water behind the dams also favors the weak-swimming pikeminnows, Porter said. It works against the juvenile salmon, which are designed to ride the current to the ocean, not swim there.

Small pikeminnows do little damage to salmon, said Lyle Fox, project leader for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. So the bounty is only on fish 9 inches or larger. By targeting the largest fish, biologists estimate that a 20 percent reduction in the pikeminnow population cuts in half the species' predation on salmon.

The bounty is for fish caught in the lower 397 miles of the Columbia (up to Priest Rapids Dam in central Washington) and the lower 247 miles of the Snake (up to Hells Canyon Dam in Idaho). Fish caught from tributary streams don't count.

Porter said this year's bounty increase is a one-year-only response to the drought. But program managers are considering keeping the $1,000 prize for tagged fish.

The top 20 anglers catch about one-quarter of the pikeminnows, said Porter. An Air Force retiree who lives to fish the Snake River is the top angler of them all.

Robert McDonald, who lives in a camper that's usually parked along the river near Almota, Wash., caught 4,873 pikeminnows worth about $35,000.

"Mac, he's down there 24/7," said McDonald's fishing buddy, Dave Simpson of Colfax. "I have to take him his groceries and his mail and everything else."

McDonald charts the movement of pikeminnows based on factors like water and air temperature, barometric pressure and phases of the moon. When the bounty season's over, he fishes for trout, steelhead, salmon, bass, sturgeon or whatever else he can catch.

At least that's what Simpson said. McDonald himself couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

He was out fishing.

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Anglers Net Big Reward for Lowly Pikeminnow
Spokesman Review, December 6, 2001

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