Reeling in the Dough:
by Annette Cary
Don Kearns and his son Mike may have the perfect summer jobs.
Both plan to spend as much time as possible this summer on the Snake and Columbia rivers catching northern pikeminnow for money.
"It's a blast," said Kearns, of Benton City. "They pay me to be out there with a fishing pole."
Since 1991, the Bonneville Power Administration has paid anglers for catching pikeminnows as part of its work to improve salmon runs harmed by federal hydroelectric dams. The largest of the pikeminnows -- called squawfish in the past -- can eat up to 15 salmon smolt in a day.
Last summer, Kearns received $15,612 in payments from the Northern Pikeminnow Sport Reward Program. That put him 22nd among earners in the program for the year, with the top money-maker earning $48,348.
But anglers like Kearns are the exception. The majority of participants in the program are sport fishermen like David Richey of Richland. When the walleye aren't biting, he'll make do with pikeminnow.
They've got some fight.
"When they hit your pole, they flat strip your line," he said.
"The main reason I like to do it is it helps the salmon recovery," said Brian Johnson of West Richland, who was fishing with Richey on a recent Sunday. "Plus you get your gas paid. It's free fishing."
The two men, both shift workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation, turned in 39 pikeminnow that day and took home some bass to eat. For casual pikeminnow anglers like them, the catch likely will bring them $156.
To encourage serious anglers, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which administers the program for BPA, increases payments for those who catch the most fish.
Catching up to 100 fish in the season that runs from May 14 to Sept. 30 will earn $4 per fish this year; 101 to 400 fish pays $5 for each and more than that pays $8 per fish. Tagged fish earn a $500 bonus.
"It's not as easy as it sounds," said Russell Porter, pikeminnow program coordinator for the fisheries commission. "We depend on people who learn how to do it to meet our catch quota."
The fisheries commission considers the season a success if 200,000 pikeminnow are turned in. Last year it paid for 240,000 fish.
It offers the reward for fish 9 inches long or larger, knowing that at 11 inches and larger the fish are preying on salmon smolt. The fisheries commission figures the program saves up to 5 million smolt a year.
"It's not going to completely solve the problem," said John Harrison, spokesman for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. "But any program that removes predators of juvenile salmon from the river is good."
Northern pikeminnow are native to the Columbia and Snake, so the goal of the project is not to eliminate them. The program is removing 17 percent to 19 percent of the pikeminnow that are large enough to prey on salmon smolt, Porter said.
The dams along the rivers serve as a smolt buffet for the larger pikeminnow. They wait for the disoriented smolt trying to find their way downstream past the dams, then pick them off.
Interest in the program has picked up since the program started offering the $500 bonus payments for tagged fish. The tags help officials estimate the pikeminnow population, the percent removed each year and changes in size over time, Porter said. Last year 1,700 fish were tagged and 216 of them were turned in, which included about 80 tagged in previous years.
Kearns, who fishes one-handed after losing his right hand in a hunting accident, caught three of the tagged fish last summer to earn $1,500.
He started fishing for pikeminnow about three years ago to earn cash to help pay for his fishing habit.
"Then I realized it could be reasonably lucrative," he said. He made $3,800 that first year and has increased his earnings each year.
On a recent weekday, work commitments allowed only two hours of fishing, but he still caught 10 fish -- enough to earn $80. But he plans to cut back his hours working at a casino to allow more time to fish later this summer. His 16-year-old son plans to make fishing his full-time job this summer.
"You chase the fish if you're doing it for money," Kearns said.
That means taking his 16-foot boat and a camping trailer to spots where he's done well, such as near The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River and Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
At The Dalles Boat Basin sport reward fishery station last summer, 45,688 pike-minnow were turned in compared with 4,974 at Columbia Point Park and 9,154 at the Vernita Bridge Rest Area.
While many anglers will jump from spot to spot to find where the fish are biting, Kearns knows the pike-minnows habits. He favors a spot that's been productive in the past and waiting for the fish to show up. No sense burning extra fuel, he said.
He likes fishing at night when there's less recreation on the river to disturb the fish. He uses bait, but pikeminnow are such predators that they can be caught with just about any fishing method, he said.
When the fish are biting, Kearns may stay on the river up to 20 hours and earn as much as $700, he said.
"It's a job, but I'm still getting to fish," he said.
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