Making the long journey home

(Utah Division of Wildlife Resources courtesy photo)
Spawning kokanee salmon move upstream in Utah’s Strawberry River near...
Story by Jeff DeMoss
Standard-Examiner staff
September 3, 2013
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It’s not as grand a spectacle as Alaska’s mighty king salmon run, or even the annual migrations of the Idaho steelhead — but Utah has a salmon run of its own that it still quite a sight to behold.

Every September at several locations in the state, kokanee salmon in brilliant red hues migrate up certain streams where they were born to spawn and die, completing the circle of life just like every other species of salmon.

Last week, biologists said salmon were staging offshore but hadn’t entered the stream yet at Sheep Creek, one of the state’s top waters for viewing the kokanee migration.

“It’s common in a drought year for them to start the run a week or two later than in wet years,” said Ron Stewart, a conservation outreach manager for the DWR. “We won’t start to worry for a few weeks.”

In 2011, Stewart said the salmon started entering the stream on Aug. 22. DWR records show the salmon have come into the stream as late as Sept. 10.

“Anglers are starting to see salmon changing shape and turning red in the reservoir,” Stewart said, “so we hope when they do decide it’s time, the spawning run will be good one.”

Kokanee salmon are a landlocked subspecies of the Idaho sockeye salmon, which are known for their dramatic spawning run, traveling up to 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater, inland stream in which they hatched. Although kokanee remain inland, living in freshwater lakes instead of the ocean, they too journey back to spawn in the stream in which they hatched.

In Utah waters, kokanee begin their spawning run in late August and September. During this time, the DWR closes fishing on selected waters within the state to aid the success of the kokanee spawning populations. While these streams are closed to fishing, they remain open for sightseeing.

Salmon run watching has recently become a tourist attraction along the shores of many salmon rivers, including several streams in Utah. Flaming Gorge, Porcupine and Strawberry reservoirs have established populations of kokanee salmon. The best places to view kokanee spawning runs in the Top of Utah are on the East Fork of the Little Bear River above Porcupine Reservoir in Cache County, and in the tributaries above Causey Reservoir near Huntsville.

The kokanee spawning run provides an excellent opportunity to witness one of nature’s interesting and unique life cycles. For kokanee salmon, life begins in the form of eggs deposited in nests called redds, which the female scrapes out of the streambed gravel. Hatching may occur at any time from November through January.

Kokanee fry gain size and weight over winter. By April, they grow to about one-and-a-half inches long, and spring runoff triggers their next stage of development. As the stream begins to swell with melted snow, the young fish begin to move downstream, swept along with the spring runoff, until they reach the open water of a lake or reservoir.

Spawning kokanee can grow to 24 or more inches in length and can weigh up to four pounds, but most are between 12 and 16 inches and weigh about one pound. Kokanee from Flaming Gorge tend to be larger, with an average length of 15 to 18 inches.

As kokanee near the time for their spawning run, they stop feeding and congregate near the inlets of spawning streams. Then, they begin to physically change. Their bodies turn a bright red and the males develop humped backs and hooked jaws.

Kokanee swim up spawning streams to get to the gravel bars. Some swim much farther than others in search of the right combination of water and gravel. Under natural conditions most kokanee, like the sockeye, return to or near to the gravel bar where they hatched. Studies have

documented that a spawning adult uses the sense of smell to identify its own specific stream and gravel bar.

Soon after spawning, kokanee adults die to complete the salmon life cycle. Their bodies provide food for predators and scavengers such as magpies, seagulls, ravens, skunks, mink and coyotes. The salmon not eaten will decompose and fertilize the waters, increasing plankton

growth for the time when young kokanee fry begin to forage for themselves.

Kokanee were first brought into Utah in 1922 from Washington State. In 1923, they were introduced into Bear Lake and then into Strawberry Reservoir in 1937. Since that time, kokanee have been introduced into several Utah waters, including Flaming Gorge, East Canyon, Scofield,

Deer Creek, Moon Lake, and Porcupine reservoirs, as well as Panquitch Lake. During 1992, fingerling kokanee were introduced into Causey and Stateline reservoirs to establish new sport fishery populations.

Today, kokanee populations are thriving in Flaming Gorge, Porcupine and Strawberry reservoirs, and future kokanee management looks bright for Utah. Most of the state’s present kokanee waters are doing well, and other waters have been identified for future introductions.

On Sept. 14, the DWR will hold its annual Kokanee Salmon Day at Sheep Creek. Viewing runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event is free.

Sheep Creek is in northeastern Utah, about six miles south of Manila. The viewing site is at the Scenic Byway turnout where Sheep Creek crosses under state Route 44.

Display materials will be available on site that will help you understand the life history and the behavior of the salmon you see in the stream.

Contact reporter Jeff DeMoss at 801-625-4263, Follow him on Twitter at @jkdemoss.

Jeff DeMoss


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