The columbia river, near Vancouver — It's been a good season for David Vasilchuk, bounty fisherman. Vasilchuk, 33, catches fish that...
THE COLUMBIA RIVER, near Vancouver — It’s been a good season for David Vasilchuk, bounty fisherman.
Vasilchuk, 33, catches fish that have long been disdained — the northern pikeminnow, which used to be called a squawfish and which in recent years is mostly known as a voracious predator of juvenile salmon.
As of a week ago last Thursday, Vasilchuk had earned $40,424 catching pikeminnows this season, putting him in the top five of bounty anglers in the Northwest, with the other four living in Oregon. Making that kind of money can mean being on the boat for 22 hours a day, catching sleep when he can.
On a recent T-shirt-weather afternoon, a few minutes after casting off in his 17-foot Bayliner, he watched the white tip of his rod — white to better see it in low light — go tap-tap-tap as the bait was being nibbled. Vasilchuk pulled hard and began reeling.
Vasilchuk, who drives a cab when he’s not fishing, was about to catch his 4,786th northern pikeminnow since the May 1 start of the bounty season. He was going to add another $8 to the total he has earned in catching these silvery fish with a long snout and a mouth that can open to 1 ½-2 inches.
Northern Pikeminnow Sport Reward Fishery Web site: www.pikeminnow.org
“And I save salmon,” he said in a thick Russian accent. His large extended family includes his parents, 10 brothers and a sister, many having come to the Vancouver area from Moldavia seven years ago.
Last year, some 2,200 anglers turned in 240,000 fish as part of the pikeminnow bounty program, although only 20 or so anglers made more than $12,000 each.
Like salmon, pikeminnows are natives to the river.
But unlike the salmon, people don’t fish them for food or sport, not tribes nor commercial enterprises, said Russell Porter, the pikeminnow program manager for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, an agency that covers five states.
Maximum size:2 feet.
Lifespan: About 12 years.
Population: More than 3 million are in the main stem of the Columbia River up to Priest Rapids Dam and the Snake River up to Hells Canyon Dam.
Danger to salmon: About 70 percent of an adult pikeminnow’s diet is juvenile salmon and steelhead. With mouths that can open as much as 2 inches wide, they can swallow a young salmon in its entirety.
Source: Russell Porter, program manager, Northern Pikeminnow Management Program, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Pikeminnows became a problem for smolts — the young salmon that migrate toward the ocean — because of dams built on the two rivers.
“We just have a series of lakes with water flowing through them slowly, which means smolts take a lot longer to swim out,” Porter said.
“They get disoriented when they come to each dam. They’re all concentrated at the back of the dams, trying to figure where the flow of the water is, and which direction to go.”
And hanging around are the pikeminnows.
“They sit around the sides of the swifter water, and catch the smolt,” Porter said. “We’ve cut open some pikeminnows that have 12 or 13 smolt filling their stomach, and two or three smolt in their throat.”
That’s why the Bonneville Power Administration this year is funding a $3.7 million program, begun in 1991, to reduce the number of pikeminnows in the Columbia and Snake rivers systems. More than 2.7 million northern pikeminnows have been caught and killed in the lower Columbia and Snake Rivers in that time.
The fish are held in such disdain that rendering plants have to be paid $15,000 a year to take the carcasses and turn them into fish meal.
“They’re not very good to eat. Most anglers consider it a nuisance fish,” Porter said. “They’re like carp, bony and flavorless. And the meat gets mushy after about two hours if you don’t keep them chilled.”
He estimated that more than 3 million pikeminnows are in the main stems of the Columbia and Snake rivers, and that getting rid of 10 to 20 percent of the population annually saves 2 ½ million to 3 million salmon smolt each year.
In a season that goes from May 1 to Oct. 1 (or Oct. 15, in certain parts of the river) anglers are paid $4 each for the first 100 pikeminnows over 9 inches; $5 each for the next 300; and $8 each for every fish after that.
To further entice anglers to get out there and fish, some pikeminnows are tagged. If an angler catches a tagged fish, it’s worth $500. This year, 1,300 pikeminnows were tagged and, so far, 198 of them have been caught.
On this day, Vasilchuk used his special bait to catch the pikeminnows.
“It’s a secret, what I use,” he said. The successful bounty fishermen, having put in long hours figuring the good fishing spots and techniques, are not much for sharing information.
“People ask me, ‘Where have you caught them?’ ” Vasilchuk said. “I tell ‘em, ‘At the bottom of the river.’ “
He began fishing in 2003, with a rod bought at Goodwill. That year, he was No. 8 on the top bounty-anglers list, earning $14,878.
But it wasn’t as if he was a beginner.
“I was fishing all the time in Russia. All the time I was at the river. I was born July 12, which in my country is the day for fishermen,” he said.
Two of his brothers, Ivan and Oleg, also take part in the pikeminnow bounty fishing, but it is David who spends the most time on the river and catches the most fish.
This year, after having caught eight of the $500 tagged pikeminnows, David treated himself to a $345 rod and a $500 reel, sensitive to every nibble.
For company, he has a radio, but he seldom turns it on.
“All the time I’m fishing. If no bite, I’m sleeping,” he said.
Vasilchuk has a cellphone and talks to his wife, Alla, who’s at home with their seven children. Sometimes she joins him at the boat, sometimes she brings him food. In the summer, one or two of the couple’s older children might also fish.
When darkness descends on the river, the scenery is beautiful. Bald eagles sometimes fly by; the clear night sky sparkles with stars.
For the most part, though, Vasilchuk keeps his eye on his fishing rod.
The bounty program has in its official title that it’s a “sport reward fishery.”
For David Vasilchuk, it’s how he makes his living.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org