Trash Fish Tuesday: The Pikeminnows

Trash Fish Tuesday
Trash Fish Tuesday: The Pikeminnows

Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into the category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.

The scene opens on an early summer morning—dew-soaked grass, a cacophony of cicadas flooding your riverside camp. The first glimpse of sunshine kisses the top of your tent while a camp stove hisses nearby. With your travel mug topped off, you break camp, load the raft, and cast away into the fog.

You pick up your fly rod, check your knot’s integrity, and start swinging and stripping. The streamer slices through the fog toward a small, woody backwater—perfect habitat for the apex predator you’re after. An explosion ensues. The rod bends, and soon your backing knot disappears into the turbid flow. After what seems like an eternity, you eventually  gaze upon the 48-inch behemoth laying in the net—a Colorado pikeminnow!

If this were a movie, now would be the part where the protagonist jolts awake. Catching such a fish would have been commonplace 100 years ago, and maybe it will be again 100 years in the future. Presently, however, catching an endangered Colorado pikeminnow of that magnitude borders on impossible. There just aren’t very many of them left.

If you live east of the Rockies, you would be forgiven for never hearing of a pikeminnow (genus Ptychocheilus), no less an endangered Colorado pikeminnow. For anglers in the Western U.S., however, “pikeminnow” might mean an omnipresent nuisance, or alternatively, an out of sight, out of mind, ghostly legend. You might even take them at face value, as a minnow—no good for eating, no good for catching—plain old “trash fish.”

You’d be wrong.

There’s a lot to value in these native, oft-neglected or forgotten fish. They could, ironically, put your firstborn through college.

A Tale of Two Fishes
Pikeminnows used to be called “squawfish.” This umbrella term for pikeminnow species has been discarded, thankfully, because it co-opted a highly offensive term for Native American women. Since 1999, the American Fisheries Society has amended their nomenclature and labeled these fish “pikeminnnows.”

Four species of pikeminnow inhabit the Western U.S.—Umpqua, Sacramento, Colorado, and northern pikeminnows. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the latter two species—they have the largest home ranges and very different stories to tell.

Colorado Pikeminnow, Ptychocheilus lucius
Historically, Colorado pikeminnow were found throughout the Colorado River Basin. However, dams, water extraction, habitat loss, overharvest, and the introduction of invasive species landed North America’s largest minnow (family Cyprinidae) on the endangered species list. And, that’s a dam(n) shame!

As the names suggest, all pikeminnows are species of minnow, but the term “minnow,” by its slang definition, doesn’t fit the Colorado pikeminnow at all. Colorado pikeminnow used to be king of the Colorado River. Accounts from the early 1900s report fish in excess of 6 feet long and upwards of 80 pounds. Back then, some anglers used horses to help wrestle hooked fish from the river. At that size, their gaping, toothless mouth could seemingly swallow a basketball. Early pioneers used mice, birds, and rabbits as bait for Colorado pikeminnow, which they sometimes dubbed “white salmon” in reference to their often long (greater than 200-mile) spawning migrations.

These massive fish were an important food source during the Great Depression. Because they are long-lived (up to 50 years), sport and commercial harvest contributed to their eventual demise. Today, agencies continue to work toward pikeminnow recovery and delisting.

The Road to Recovery
Matt Breen, native aquatics project leader with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, sees hope for the species but emphasizes that much work remains: “Ten years ago there was an uptick in our population estimates, but recently we aren’t seeing the young-of-the-year numbers we have in the past,” Breen told MeatEater.

To help combat this bottleneck for young fish reaching maturity, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program requests seasonal flows out of Flaming Gorge Dam to disrupt and disadvantage non-natives while assisting pikeminnow recruitment. The requested flows mimic natural, pre-dam conditions under which Colorado pikeminnow evolved. As Breen described, environmental conditions play a big role in the success of spawning and recruitment each year.

“That’s why they live 50 years, they are waiting for the best window, the best environmental conditions to spawn,” Breen said. “But, even in good years, the young still have to survive all the non-natives.” To that end, anglers are encouraged to target and remove non-native species in the Upper Colorado River. You might even happen into a pikeminnow.

“It’s not easy to make an endangered species a sport fish, but that might be something we work toward,” Breen said. “I’ve never spoken to anyone that was like, ‘Geez, that sucked catching that pikeminnow.’ Anyone who has caught one tells me something like, ‘Wow, that was exciting, the fight, the fish, everything.’”

“They are just cool fish. They’re the only native predator in their range, they almost exclusively eat other fish, and they don’t even have any teeth,” Breen continued.

Imagine a “muskie of the West!” Albeit, a toothless one. Perhaps a pikeminnow sport fishery could re-emerge if their populations improve. An angler can dream.

Regardless, these important and incredibly cool native fish should be celebrated rather than mistakenly lumped together with the closely related northern pikeminnow.

Northern pikeminnow, Ptychocheilus oregonensis
You know that one cousin everyone whispers about at your family reunion barbecue (you might know him as Eddie), the one who brings shame to the family surname? Yeah, that’s the northern pikeminnow.

Northern ‘minnows are native to Pacific river drainages stretching from British Columbia to Nevada. In particular, they are widespread and widely known across the Snake and Columbia River basins of the Pacific Northwest. They don’t reach near the size of the Colorado pikeminnow, generally topping out in the 2-foot range. However, the northern pikeminnow’s appetite can make up for its lack of stature. Herein lies the conundrum that has relegated this species, justly or not, to the trashier side of native fishes. Northern pikeminnow eat juvenile salmon and steelhead—a lot of juvenile salmon and steelhead.

This conundrum traces back again to those damn dams that have beleaguered many native fish populations since construction. The list of nuances is extensive, but long story short, dams were built, salmonid migrations were blocked, salmonid populations crashed, lots and lots of money is now pumped into salmon recovery efforts, but salmon still struggle.

Why? In part, because a myriad of dams created conditions that suit northern pikeminnow’s preferences and provide ample opportunities for pikeminnow to feast on juvenile salmonids, especially during their outmigration to sea. Moreover, non-native predators, namely smallmouth bass and walleye, now call these river basins home as well, and anglers generally like to be able to fish for these prized species. In contrast, native northern pikeminnow are often viewed as the enemy. In actuality, pikeminnows can pay dividends to anglers who catch them. Literally.

The Path to Riches
Since 1990, in order to reduce the numbers and size of northern pikeminnows, nearly 5.1 million of the fish have been removed from the Snake and Columbia rivers as part of the Pikeminnow Sport Reward Fishery. To that end, anglers are paid $5 to $8 for each pikeminnow over 9 inches caught and removed from the rivers. And some anglers are not messing around—the top earner each year often receives more than $50,000 in reward payouts. In 2016, one angler raked in nearly $120,000 by catching 14,019 northern pikeminnows. With these efforts, predation on juvenile salmon has been reduced by about 40% since the program’s inception. But the reward program, funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, is more Band-Aid than cure.

As big money goes to restore salmonid populations in the Pacific Northwest, which are heavily supported by stocked hatchery fish, remember this: the root of the problem is no fault of the northern pikeminnow. The actions of humans transformed the species from a native predator enabling ecosystem balance to a trashy fish with a bounty on its head. Accordingly, tens of thousands of northern pikeminnow are removed annually but very few find their way to the dinner table. And, that too, is a damn shame.

MeatEater’s own Sam Lungren grew up in Washington, frequently interacting with the hated fish.

“Bounties aside, there are many parts of the Columbia River drainage where it’s nearly impossible to not catch pikeminnows. I understand how some guys get 10,000 in a year.”

Sam said that northern pikeminnows’ large populations could maybe excuse some anglers and agencies for culling them to promote salmon, but he wonders if those folks know what they’re missing.

“Back in high school I caught a 28-incher on a camping trip. We pretty much had to eat it,” Sam said. “It tasted like fish. Firm, flaky, white, and unremarkable—just like many sportfish we consume regularly. If we’re killing off native species, it sure would be nice to put some of that meat to use.”

Who knows, maybe at your next family reunion barbecue, northern pikeminnow will make the menu. I wouldn’t trash you for that. Just as I wouldn’t trash you for daydreaming about what it would be like to catch a 6-foot Colorado pikeminnow on the fly.

Feature image courtesy of Matt Breen.

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