By Allen Thomas
RUFUS, Ore. — Rick Farris cast the 3-ounce cannonball sinker and pearl Gitzit tube off the John Day Dam powerhouse into the roiling waters of the Columbia River. He bounced the offering almost 200 yards downstream before feeling the tug of a northern pikeminnow. Instinctively, he set the hook and slowly retrieved the line, fighting the fish and the strong and swirling current.
Farris winched the pikeminnow up the front of the powerhouse, unhooked it and marked the size of fish and time of catch on a tally sheet.
“I had 190 one week,” said Farris, a resident of The Dalles. “We were really cranking them out.”
Farris is a dam angler.
He’s part of a four-member crew paid hourly to fish from mid-May to mid-September off the front of The Dalles and John Day dams in the joint state-federal effort to reduce the pikeminnow population in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Pikeminnows are effective predators of young salmon and steelhead migrating downstream. Eighty-two percent of young salmon and steelhead consumed by fish in the Columbia are taken by pikeminnow.
The dam anglers are an adjunct to a popular sport-reward program that pays sportsmen up to $8 per pikeminnow to remove the predators from the river.
Farris said he has a good job, but it can still be work, especially when the temperature on the powerhouse exceeds 100 degrees.
“It is a lot of fun until the last month when your legs are dead and your arms are tired,” he said. “It’s still fishing and it’s still fun, but bodies wear out.”
There are lots of pikeminnows immediately below the dams, but sport reward anglers are not allowed on the dams due to the obvious security concerns, said Eric Winther, northern pikeminnow program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The dam anglers get after those fish. In the early 1990s, tribal fishermen worked the dams for four or five years. Then, about a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over.
Three years ago, dam angling became part of the state-federal pikeminnow program, which is financed by the Bonneville Power Administration.
In 2011, the dam anglers caught about 4,526 pikeminnows, with 1,204 coming from The Dalles Dam and 3,322 from John Day.
Winther said the fishing is better early in the season at The Dalles and best late at John Day.
Catching pikeminnows at the dam is not like trout in a hatchery.
“You have to be in touch with the bottom,” Winther said. “It takes time to get the hang of it.”
Not just pikeminnows are caught.
“There are a fair amount of smallmouth and walleye, plus a few channel catfish,” Winther said. “Sometimes, we’ll hook a sturgeon. A salmon or steelhead is pretty rare.”
Farris said the sturgeon are no fun.
“You’ll hook into a 30- to 32-inch sturgeon,” he said. “They are not quite big enough to break off. You fight them and they wear you out.”
Winther said the Gitzit tubes have proven to be the crew’s most effective lures.
“We haven’t found anything better and don’t want a bycatch of sturgeon or salmon that you would get with bait,” he said.
Pearl, shad and rainbow trout were the most productive colors on Aug. 16, but dark smoke hologram and black copper glitter have been the top producers by far during the past three seasons.
Once the summer sun reaches over the powerhouse wall, the temperatures soar.
“It was 80 degrees at 10 a.m. the other day,” said Scott Mengis, another dam angler. “At 11:15, it was 120 degrees. You drink lots of fluids.”
Winther said the winds of the Columbia Gorge also can make conditions tough.
“The wind can be a pain,” he said. “It blows in your face. It wears on you. It makes it harder to fish.”
Marikay Jester, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biological technician, samples the stomach contents of the pikeminnow.
She finds small lamprey, shad, crawfish and bass as well as young salmon and steelhead.
“They are very opportunistic feeders,” Jester said.
Miroslav Zyndol, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist at John Day Dam, lauded the dam angling program.”This area is restricted to the public, but this is an area with a lot of pikeminnow available,” Zyndol said. “We see evidence by the number of fish caught it’s a pretty big problem.”
Farris said over the course of the summer he’ll occasionally lasso a pikeminnow without actually having a hook in the fish.
“Anybody can catch them,” he said. “It takes someone special to lasso them.”