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Big Fish Runs Mean Big Bucks for Businesses

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, October 20, 2002

Dan Sullivan's answering machine says everything you need to know about guided fishing on the Hanford Reach this fall.

His boat is booked, he says, before listing names of competitors that might still have open seats.

It appears everyone has heard there are 78,000 fall chinook on the Columbia River above Richland, inspiring countless out-of-staters and novice anglers to join local die-hards in trying to catch some of the euphoria that arrives with the Northwest's icon fish.

That means big business for hordes of guides who have sprung up around the Mid-Columbia in the last two or three years, trading their pastime for customers and cash.

"Every year, I see more and more guides out there," said David Perez, who runs Hooked on Fishing Guide Service out of Sunnyside. "There is a lot of interest."

Guides aren't alone in reaping the benefits. As the end of the Reach fishing season approaches, more than 5,000 fish have been caught and the fishery is well on its way to generating $2 million in spending.

"We are one of the few bright spots in the economy," said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in Oregon City, Ore.

"Our industry is fabulously healthy in the Northwest right now. I think the industry is probably having some of the best years in about two decades."

Rod Nolan has witnessed the frenzy that surrounds an extraordinary return of the giant fish.

"Every day, there are new people here saying, 'What do we need to do to get set up to fish?' " said Nolan, manager of Grigg's Department Store in Pasco. "Guys are coming in and saying, 'This is what I am spending. Set me up. I need to catch fish.' "

Scores of first-timers seem to figure this is their best shot to catch the big one -- as in 30 to 50 pounds.

"We had a time when you put in many hours in a season and maybe caught one," Nolan said. "Now, a guy can go up and put in part of a day and catch one."

The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association estimates each angler trip injects about $100 into the economy through purchases of licenses, gas, boats, tackle, guides, lodging, food and other accessories. A 1996 analysis showed sport fishing generated

$3 billion in direct and indirect business along with 38,500 jobs in the Northwest.

Such numbers are part of the reason for intense interest in restoring fish runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers: Fish mean money.

"When fish are available locally, people will spend their money locally," Hamilton said. "And when there are not fish available locally, they will save up their money for that one big trip. They will go."

A 1994 study by the Northwest Marine Trade Association showed a steady increase in the number of Washingtonians buying fishing licenses in British Columbia, taking with them millions of dollars that presumably are staying closer to home now that there's big fish runs on the Columbia and improving runs on the Yakima River.

At Cascade Marina in Pasco, owner Ron Sawyer is attracting some of that business. He said interest in fishing boats between $16,000 and $45,000 is as heavy now as it was at the start of boating season.

"They are interested now for a boat specifically for fishing rather than just having the year-end clearance people coming in looking for bargains," he said. "Three or four years ago, we would have stopped selling boats in August, but we are selling them into November. And there is the possibility of selling them all the way through the winter."

Salmon runs also are boosting Sawyer's boat service and repair business. "Where people would say in years past, 'Wait until next spring,' now they want it fixed right away so they can get right back out on the water."

Last year, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated 20,000 angler trips on the Reach and about 7,000 harvested chinook even though the fall salmon run was about half of this year's. Once the Reach fishing season ends upstream of the wooden power lines on Tuesday, the state will be able to figure how many more people were lured to the Columbia this season.

Even without hard numbers, it's clearly been a profitable fall for guides, who commonly are landing six or eight fish in a day and pulling in customers just as quickly.

"I was completely booked," said Perez, who started in 1999 and hit pay dirt with this year's huge spring and fall fisheries. "This has been the best year for me by far."

Sullivan, of West Richland, was on the water 31 days in a row this fall without the benefit of a single Tri-City group. His customers come from around the Northwest and include a large number of business owners who buy several fishing trips at the start of each year and give them to top employees or customers they want to impress.

Sullivan said his customers have landed six fish in the 40-pound range this year. And nothing makes a guide happier than pulling into the dock with a full load of salmon for everyone else to envy.

"It's pretty competitive up there," said Sullivan, owner of Lip Locked Guide Service. "That is the name of the game: Keeping your clients happy and out-fishing everybody else."

A day of guided Reach fishing costs between $100 and $165, about what it would cost to get outfitted with low-end chinook fishing gear.

By some estimates, more than 20 guides are on the Reach this fall, although several reportedly are not properly registered with the state and Coast Guard.

Sullivan, 30, takes about two months off his job as a Pasco Fire Department paramedic for the fall salmon run. He started his business six years ago after enough people at the dock asked him how he kept catching so many fish. "I said, 'You know what? As much as I love to do this, I might as well make some money doing it!'"

While customers keep lining up to hand him money, the fishing blues appear to hit at the end of every season and he's soured a bit by losing his hobby to work.

"The money aspect is great," he said. "But it turns something I love to do into a job."

Mike Lee
Big Fish Runs Mean Big Bucks for Businesses
Tri-City Herald, October 20, 2002

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