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Getting Paid, Saving Salmon

Saving juvenile salmon on the Columbia River


For most hobby anglers, getting out on the water and casting a line is a way to decompress, enjoy nature and maybe even grab lunch.

For a select group of hardcore anglers on the Columbia and Snake rivers, it’s a full-time job. And for the best of the best, it can pay handsomely.

Enter the Sport Reward Fishery Program, a pay-per-catch system that pays anglers between $6-10 per caught northern pikeminnow, with certain tagged fish worth $500 a pop.

In 2021, the top-20 anglers caught an astounding average of 2,393 fish and averaged a reward of $19,752 each. To date, roughly 5.3 million northern pikeminnow have been removed by the program, reducing predation of juvenile salmon by up to 40 percent compared to pre-program levels, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The idea began in the 1980s when salmon populations along the river were dangerously low due to a century of overfishing, habitat degradation (especially due to hydroelectric dams) and predation. Juvenile salmon that live in the freshwater environment of the Columbia and Snake rivers are a common meal for the marauding northern pikeminnow.

A flurry of studies were conducted by Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments and the University of Washington to determine the best method to protect these smolts.

Setting these young salmon up to be gobbled down by preying pikeminnow were the gauntlet of dams throughout the river system that help power the entire Pacific Northwest. The studies found, in dam after dam, that juvenile salmon were – ahem – like fish in a barrel for hungry pikeminnow.

The lights for millions of residents couldn’t be shut off to save the salmon, so a novel idea was broached.

Have the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) – the federal agency that provides over a quarter of all electric power in the region via hydroelectric dams – pay cash to anyone who catches a full-grown northern pikeminnow. Per the 1980 Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act, an energy provider such as BPA that sells power from 31 federal dams in the Columbia River Basin must offset their environmental impacts.

The goal every year is to cull 10-20 percent of the environment’s pikeminnow population, which Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife project lead Eric Winther said has been met all but three seasons in the three decade history of the program.

Winther has worked on this project since its inception in 1991. He’s likely seen thousands of eager anglers check in at his kiosk along the Columbia hoping to make a small fortune.

He’s seen payouts rise over the years to keep anglers coming back for bigger and bigger rewards – the BPA’s program budget currently sits around $1.5 million, Winther said.

He’s also seen anglers make six-figure sums from the season that runs from May to September.

The current program record for the largest single-season payout to an individual angler was $119,341 in 2016. That angler caught an astounding 14,019 fish, with a dozen of those being the prized, special tagged pikeminnow. In the most recent season, the top angler earned $107,800, with the top 20 all earning over $17,000.

“In my world, everybody knows about this, but I’m always amazed how many people that are into fishing or the outdoors or Columbia River issues who have not heard of it,” Winther said. “It’s a constant battle trying to get the word out.”

While getting the word out and getting more anglers on the water is a constant job for Winther, he also notes that there is a big difference between the cohort of high earners and everybody else.

“River gossip,” as Winther calls it, gets around quickly, and the best fishing spots are often the ones nobody has heard about yet.

Fishing, like any sport, brings out the competition in people. Especially with anglers. Add a dollar sign to a hobby already steeped in competition, and you get a fierce fishing season on the Columbia and Snake.

“A lot of them are competitive anyways,” Winther said. “When you add dollars to that, it just spurs the competition that much more.”

Winther said if you’re just starting out, don’t get your hopes up for a massive payday. Competition is fierce and the high-earning anglers aren’t keen to blab about their favorite fishing holes.

“They get hit up all the time by somebody that’s brand new who wants to go out and figure out how to make $1,000 a day fishing,” Winther said. “Odds are, aren’t going to give them much in the way of information.”

While the cohort of top-20 anglers are unlikely to help out newcomers – or reporters vying for an interview – Winther did say a great place to start out is the Dalles Dam at the beginning of the season.

“That’s your best bet to have good fishing right away from day one.”

For more information about the sport reward program, visit www.pikeminnow.org. The site has everything a hopeful angler could need on boat launches and check in stations along the basin, fishing maps, and state and federal fishing regulations. The 2024 season will open May 1 and close September 30.    X