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A Lonesome Legend

The 20th anniversary of Lonesome Larry

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"Dewey Defeats Truman."

"Passengers Safely Moved and Steamer Titanic Taken in Tow."

Some headlines got it wrong--some more than others.

"First Sockeye Swims Back Into Redfish: Fish and Game Hopes There Will Be Enough Salmon to Breed," read the headline of the Idaho Statesman on Aug. 5, 1992. But Fish and Game couldn't have been more wrong.

In fact, the sockeye that fluttered into Redfish Lake Creek on Aug. 4, 1992, would be the only sockeye to swim back to the weir that year. The sockeye would become better known as "Lonesome Larry." But Larry's legacy does live on to this day. It's believed that as many as 10 percent of every year's returning sockeye salmon are directly descended from Lonesome Larry. His iconic journey spawned the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's captive breeding program, but environmentalists warn that Idaho's redfish still aren't safe.

It was 20 years ago this month that Larry entered the Columbia River system. It's believed that he hatched from an egg sometime around March 1988. But while he was swimming in the Pacific Ocean, his relatives were dying in record numbers. On Nov. 14, 1991, about the time Larry was 3 years old, sockeye salmon were listed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (now National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries) as endangered.

It's believed that Larry began swimming up the Columbia River in May 1992. Larry was among 15 sockeye salmon to pass lower Granite Dam between June 8 and Aug. 30, 1992, but he was the only fish to survive the remaining journey. According to Idaho Rivers United, Larry swam 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. He scaled eight dams, dove through major rapids and climbed 6,547 feet. And on Aug. 4, 1992, he made his solo entrance into Redfish Lake.

"This lone fish ... swam the lonely ocean for two or three years and then fought to return--alone," said Greg Stahl, IRU assistant policy director. "Only he survived. The tragedy can't be overstated."

But Lonesome Larry's legend was only beginning. His milt (seminal fluid) was put on ice and used to fertilize eggs from returning females in 1996 and 1997. According to the IRU, Larry's genes are now scattered throughout a percentage of every new generation of sockeye, including the 1,000 or so fish that are likely to return in 2012.

A series of court-ordered spills along the eight Snake and Columbia river dams have assisted salmon survival, along with the ESA listing, but IRU remains concerned.

"The return rate is still dismal--probably only 10 percent of what it needs to be," said IRU board member Tom Stuart.

Stuart's colleague, IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy, said hatchery programs and the current spill program won't be enough to recover the species.

"Removing the four low-value dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington is still the only sure way to keep redfish in Idaho's Redfish Lake," said Sedivy.

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