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When Jeff Keith isn’t fishing, he’s hunting — and he said he fishes for just about everything. But there are probably few fish he goes after as much as northern pikeminnow.

And endangered Columbia River salmon are a little better off because of his zeal.

In August and September, he fishes the river from dawn to dusk, no matter if he is “fried” by the sun or pelted by summer storms.

But it’s made his wallet fatter: Keith, 47, caught more pikeminnow than any Cowlitz County angler in the 2018 Northern Pikeminnow Sport-Reward program, a federally sponsored effort to control the bony, long-lived fish that feast on salmon and steelhead smolts.

Paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration, the program pays anglers for each pikeminnow they catch over nine inches. The goal is to reduce the number of older, larger fish. Keith took 21st place out of anglers overall with his catch of 2,000 fish, earning $16,000.

Keith said he’s been as high as ninth place about four years ago. He caught “over 3,100 fishes, and tendinitis in my elbows.”

Pikeminnow are a native species, but dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers create pools of slack water where they can easily ambush juvenile salmon and steelhead. Government officials created the bounty program in 1990 to control the voracious fish. Anglers have caught nearly 5 million since then and have reduced pikeminnow predation of juvenile salmon by 40 percent, according to the program’s website.

Keith, a Longview carpenter, has fished for pikeminnow nearly since the program began, but he got his start as an angler far earlier.

At age 4, he worked on fishing hooks in his dad’s shop. He’d fish in a creek in his front yard as a little kid, where at the age of 12 his father would stock pikeminnow for him to catch.

The fish were plentiful back then, he said, but perhaps due to Bonneville’s efforts and fishermen like him, that’s changed. Keith said that catching them now is more about helping salmon, making some money and getting to fish competitively.

“It’s about as close to tournament fishing as I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “You go hard from daylight til dark. ... You have to go, go, go, go, go.”

Bounty fishing is yet another chance to experience the wonders of solitude in the wilderness. The local wildlife know him well enough that they’ll follow him down the river as he fishes for steelhead, salmon and sturgeon as well as pikeminnow, Keith said.

“You catch a small fish you can’t keep, you throw it out and an eagle comes right by the boat and catches it. I’ve got some of them trained where I’ll whistle and they’ll jump out of the tree before I ever throw the fish.”

Last year, Keith said he caught an average of 35 or 40 pikeminnow a day. Sometimes, he caught them all in an hour; other days “it’d take you all day to find them.”

Anglers caught more than 180,000 pikeminnow in 2018, according to the program’s website. The first place angler caught more than 8,600 fish, earning $71,049. This year’s bounty runs from May 1 through Sept. 30.

Bounties on the fish have improved over the years. Bonneville used to offer a flat $3 per pikeminnow returned, and they had to be at least 11 inches long. Now Bonneville pays $5 for the first 100 fish and more after that. After an angler has returned 200 pikeminnow, they’ll get $8 for every fish caught.

Biologists also release a number of “tagged” fish every year that are worth a hefty bounty. This year, 1,000 tagged pikeminnow, each worth $500, were released.

Scientists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife use the tagged fish to estimate how much of a dent anglers put in the pikeminnow population each year.

It’s “not quite as linear as 200 out of 1,000 meaning 20 percent,” said Steve Williams, program manager at the Pacific State Marine Commission, “but you get the idea. ... We are not trying to eliminate them. We’re trying to manage them.”

Scientists aim to catch 10 to 20 percent of the pikeminnow population each year, Williams said. With 198 tags caught in 2018, they reached a rate of 16.8 percent. Keith said he caught two of those tags, earning $1,000 for just two landings.

The program can be lucrative, Keith said, but he cautioned amateur fishers against seeing it as a get-rich-quick scheme. Competition has grown since he started, but 80 to 90 percent of pikeminnow anglers won’t break even, he said.

“I don’t want to build it up and have a whole bunch of people spend a bunch of money and be disappointed, because that’s what’s going to happen.”

Pikeminnow are agile, he said, and an angler needs to understand how the time of year, tidal conditions and a myriad other variables affect their behavior. They can swim at nearly any depth or location, in groups or alone.

“It all comes together over a lifetime of experience of chasing them,” Keith said. “The average guy is not going to go out there and stuff his pockets with money.”

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