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The Columbia River Northern Pikeminnow Bounty Fishing Reward Program gets underway May 1, and while funding looked limited early on, it now appears there will be enough to allow for a harvest level similar to last season.

“Following the 2016 season, as we began planning for the 2017 season, the default 2017 reward fund amount remained about the same (a roughly $1.8-million budget) as it had been prior to the 2016 season, which had not been adequate to cover total 2016 reward fund costs,” said Eric Winther, project leader for the state Fish and Wildlife Columbia River Predator Control Program.

Eric Winther, head of the state’s pikeminnow program, checks in with bounty fisherman David Vasilchuk.
Eric Winther, head of the state’s pikeminnow program, checks in with bounty fisherman David Vasilchuk.

At that time, Winther said, “it was proposed we should make anglers aware the season may have to end early (Aug. 31) if the reward fund remained at the old level, and was spent at a level predicted to be exhausted prior to Sept. 30.”

“The Pikeminnow Program has always had a cap on the reward fund, which could have resulted in an early closure to the program if the fund were exhausted,” Winther said. “This has only happened a few times over the past 26 seasons and when it has happened, BPA has chosen (although they were not obligated) to add additional dollars to the reward fund rather than to end the season early.”

“The main point of the possible early end date is to simply emphasize that the reward fund (whatever level it is set at prior to the season) is a finite amount and that once it is spent, the season could end.“

Since then, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has decided to commit additional funds to the 2017 pikeminnow reward fund, which will allow for a 2017 harvest level comparable to 2016 (225,350 fish).

The cash-reward project funded by the BPA began in 1990, and has been open in past seasons from May 1 through the end of September from the Columbia River mouth to Priest Rapids Dam, and from the Snake River mouth to Hells Canyon Dam.

The reward program helps get rid, but not eliminate these juvenile salmon- and steelhead-devouring native predators better known as “squawfish.” The goal of the program is to reduce the average size and curtail the number of larger, older fish.

Since its conception, more than 4.6-million northern pikeminnow have been removed by the program reducing them by up to 40 percent compared to levels of predation before the program began.

In 2016, the top twenty anglers caught an average of about 4,250 fish per angler, and averaged reward payments of $36,000 each for the five-month season.

Piles of pikeminnow fish line the bottom of an ice chest, the Bonneville Power Administration pays for a bounty program on the pikeminnows. AMANDA SMITH The Seattle Times
Piles of pikeminnow fish line the bottom of an ice chest, the Bonneville Power Administration pays for a bounty program on the pikeminnows. AMANDA SMITH The Seattle Times

The highest paid angler earned $119,341 with 14,019 fish caught and 12 tags; second was paid $55,245 with 6,625 and five tags; third was paid $53,165 with 6,389 and four tags; fourth was paid $47,817 with 5,561 and seven tags; and fifth was $39,057 with 4,688 and four tags.

The total catch in 2016 was 225,350 fish for 27,775 anglers with 288 tags turned in for an average of 8.1 fish per rod.

The best catches occurred during the week ending on May 8, 2016 when 14,772 anglers caught 15,029 fish on June 12; 1,745 had 14,345 on June 5; and 1,706 had 14,054 on May 22. The highest catch ratio occurred at the end of September with a 10.5 to 12.5 fish per rod average.

The BPA funds the program to partially mitigate for the impact of the federal Columbia River hydroelectric system on salmon.

The more northern pikeminnow an angler catches, the more the fish are worth. The first 25 are worth $5 each; after 25 they are worth $6 each, and after 200 fish they are worth $8 each. As an added incentive, specially tagged fish are worth $500.

Winther pointed out participation has declined from 2009 to 2014, and was risking the program’s ability to achieve the 10- to 20-percent exploitation goal.

“In response, we raised the base reward to $5 and lowered the tier levels to allow anglers to more easily reach the higher pay levels,” said Winther.  “The reward changes worked as planned and participation increased greatly in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, when the reward changes were approved by BPA, the additional funds added to the reward fund (prior to the season) were not sufficient to cover the additional harvest generated from the increase in angler effort.”

David Vasilchuk pulls in a net containing a pikeminnow that he quickly caught while bounty fishing on the Columbia River, the Bonneville Power Administration pays for program on Northern pikeminnows. Vasilchuk and fellow fishermen get money for each pikeminnow caught. AMANDA SMITH The Seattle Times
David Vasilchuk pulls in a net containing a pikeminnow that he quickly caught while bounty fishing on the Columbia River, the Bonneville Power Administration pays for program on Northern pikeminnows. Vasilchuk and fellow fishermen get money for each pikeminnow caught. AMANDA SMITH The Seattle Times

“Given that high water years (as it appears 2017 will be) generally result in lower pikeminnow harvest, I do not expect 2017 harvest to be as high as 2016 (1991-2015 average harvest is 175-180,000 fish),” he said.

If there is a slow start due to the high water levels, Winther expects that there will be sufficient funds to have a full 2017 pikeminnow season (through Sept. 30), although technically, it could still end early if 2017 harvest exceeds 2016 levels such that we exhausted the reward fund prior to that.

The fish caught aren’t just thrown away in the trash; they are used to make liquid organic fertilizer for agriculture and fish meal for poultry and dairy cattle feed.

There are 17 check stations along both rivers. Anglers must register in person each day before fishing. Catches must be checked in at the station each day, and reward vouchers will be given.

The fish prefer rocky areas with fast currents near dams, islands, river mouths, points, eddies, rows of pilings and ledges or bars in the river. They prefer depths of 7 to 25 feet.

Early morning hours, around sunset or night-time are prime time to catch them. Baits of choice include worms, salmon eggs, fish entrails, chicken livers, crayfish tails, shrimp and grasshoppers. Artificial plastic lures like grubs, worms or shads work well. Squawfish are attracted to light-colored lures in the day and darker ones at night.

For more information, call 800-858-9015 or got to http://www.pikeminnow.org/.

2016 Reward Program Catch Data

On the Lower Columbia River in the Cathlamet area, 2,791 anglers caught 12,738 for 4.6 fish per rod with 11 tags; at Willow Grove Park, 2,524 anglers caught 13,380 for 5.3 fish per rod with 22 tags; at Rainier Marina, 1,159 anglers caught 8,649 for 7.5 fish per rod with nine tags; at Kalama Marina, 1,147 anglers caught 7,330 for 6.4 fish per rod with 14 tags; at Ridgefield Marina, 628 anglers caught 6,711 for 10.7 fish per rod with six tags; at M. James Gleason boat ramp, 1,200 anglers caught 6,982 for 5.8 fish per rod with 16 tags; at Chinook Landing, 1,161 anglers caught 9,489 for 8.2 fish per rod with 10 tags; at Washougal boat ramp, 1,447 anglers caught 14,042 for 9.7 fish per rod with 29 tags; and  at Beacon Rock, 233 anglers caught 1,538 for 6.6 fish per rod with two tags.

On the Columbia River above Bonneville Dam in the Cascade Locks boat ramp, 1,231 anglers caught 13,516 for 11.0 fish per rod with 15 tags; and at Bingen Marina, 675 anglers caught 8,690 for 12.9 fish per rod with six tags.

On the Columbia River above The Dalles Dam in The Dalles Boat Basin, 3,520 anglers caught 41,479 for 11.8 fish per rod with 26 tags; at Giles French, 837 anglers caught 7,661 for 9.2 fish per rod with six tags; at Umatilla boat ramp, 844 anglers caught 2,505 for 3.0 fish per rod with five tags; and at Columbia Point Park near Richland, 2,298 anglers caught 15,818 for 6.9 fish per rod with seven tags.

On the Columbia River near the Vernita Dam at the Vernita Bridge Rest Area, 347 anglers caught 1,274 for 3.7 fish per rod with five tags; at Lyons Ferry, 236 anglers caught 2,005 for 8.5 fish per rod with no tags; at Boyer Park, 3,221 anglers caught 37,337 for 11.6 fish per rod with 14 tags; and at Greenbelt on Washington-Idaho border, 2,276 anglers caught 14,206 for 6.2 fish per rod with 25 tags.