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Stalking the invaders

ODFW is offering prizes to anglers who catch invasive pikeminnow in the Rogue River

GRANTS PASS — Caius Fears heads down to the Rogue River with his family most summer days to drown a few worms in search of a nonnative fish no one wants to see in this river.

Bare-chested and wading in the warm Rogue, he’s a modern-day Huck Finn doing his part to rid the Rogue of invasive pikeminnow, one cast at a time.

“Mostly, if we do catch anything, it’s pikeminnow,” says Caius, 12.

Photo courtesy Jeremiah Fears Caius Fears, left, and his brother Malachai, with a pikeminnow caught in 2020 in the Rogue River during the annual pikeminnow roundup, which is now underway again.

Pikeminnow are a bane of the Rogue River’s famed native salmon and steelhead populations. They are considered little more than bald eagle bait among seasoned anglers, but Caius has kept an open mind to their culinary potential.

“I actually ate one of them,” he says. “It was good, but ... not so good.”

But this one-man pikeminnow eradication program did earn himself a $20 gift certificate to Bradbury’s Gun and Tackle store in Grants Pass for last year’s effort, which is now getting duplicated.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched its third annual pikeminnow roundup, offering prizes to anglers who catch and remove these invasive Umpqua Basin natives from the Rogue.

Prizes go to whoever catches the largest, longest and most total poundage of pikeminnows now through Sept. 5. Or just upload a picture of yourself with one of these invaders and qualify for another cache of prizes.

Pikeminnows caught during the roundup can be donated as food for animals at Wildlife Images Rehabilitation Center in Merlin during Sunday check-ins from noon to 4 p.m. at the center, as well as Riverside Park in Grants Pass.

The roundup is orchestrated by ODFW fish biologist Ryan Battleson, who says the impact of the event has more to do with the future than dealing with these present-day invaders.

The event helps raise awareness about the impacts of nonnative invaders while getting kids like Caius geeked on fishing.

“It constantly reminds folks that we don’t want these fish, or any nonnative fish, in this system,” Battleson says.

The inaugural event in 2019 removed 175 pounds of pikeminnows, but last year’s COVID-influenced effort dropped that catch down to 149 pounds, Battleson says.

More than $1,000 in prizes are available. Pictures of caught pikeminnows can be sent to RoguePikeminnowRoundup@gmail.com to qualify.

Winners will be announced the week of Sept. 6.

Signs detailing the various drawing options and other materials are available at boat ramps along the Rogue from Gold Hill to Galice.

A 1993 ODFW study showed that pikeminnows more than 10 inches long in the Rogue eat infant wild salmon and steelhead, and juveniles out-compete wild salmon and steelhead fry for food and space.

Angling groups in the mid 1990s held pikeminnow derbies to raise awareness of their impact on the Rogue and as a way to get anglers to help purge as many salmon-killing predators as they could with hook and line.

Other rivers with pikeminnows have derbies, and the Bonneville Power Administration pays anglers for pikeminnow they take out of the Columbia River. But this is the only ODFW-led pikeminnow effort on the Rogue.

Pikeminnow and wild salmon have lived together in the Rogue since pikeminnow were illegally introduced in the Rogue during an overflow of a farm pond in the Grave Creek drainage in the late 1970s.

While adult pikeminnow are known to prey heavily on salmon and steelhead fry, their biggest impact on native Rogue fish is that the out-compete them for food and space, Battleson says.

Battleson doesn’t have to go much farther than nearby Jumpoff Joe Creek, a significant steelhead spawning and rearing tributary degraded by the invaders.

“Lower Jumpoff Joe Creek is nothing but pikeminnow,” Battleson says.

They thrive in warm water, so they are most prevalent in the Gold Hill to Galice stretch.

They do extremely well in reservoirs, so the removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams helped reduce pikeminnow habitat.

Pikeminnow were found upstream of both dams before their removal, but the dam removals have helped discourage pikeminnow from invading cooler stretches of the upper Rogue, water generally not suitable for them, biologists say.

The best long-term solution toward pikeminnow abatement in the Rogue is to keep tributaries producing as much cool water as possible — keeping water more salmon-friendly than pikeminnow-friendly in the mainstem Rogue, Battleson says.

While culling pikeminnow, anglers should treat them humanely, and fishers should not target native species such as suckers, which should be released, Battleson says.

Caius and his younger brother Malachai are back plying the Rogue for pikeminnow, even though Caius has yet to cash in on last year’s gift certificate.

“It’s been hard to get out of the house, but we do have it in the cupboard,” says Alisha Fears, Caius’ mother.

Caius plans to use the card to pay it forward for more pikeminnow success.

“I’m buying a fishing net,” he says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.