The return of wild salmon to Idaho's lakes and rivers has marked an important natural and cultural event for centuries in this state. Every summer, Chinook and Sockeye salmon battle their way upstream through the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to return to their birthplace to spawn. After the deed is done, the salmon die. Don't feel too bad for the fish; their hasty end is just one element of the salmon life cycle. Travel to Sawtooth Valley and you might be able to witness wild salmon on the last leg of their life journey.
In recent years, many have mourned declining salmon returns; the low numbers have been attributed to the eight dams that complicate the path of the fish between Idaho and the Pacific Ocean. Redfish Lake near Stanley was once so jam-packed with the ruby tinted Sockeye salmon that the alpine lake seemed to be colored a dark red. Seeing a Sockeye in Redfish is a rare event these days (only two have returned to the lake thus far this season), but don't be discouraged. Unabashed naturalists can check out the tributaries of the Salmon River and find other types of salmon spawning. Many Chinook manage to make a successful return to their origins, despite the eight concrete obstacles that hinder their path.
Once the Chinook return to the creek where they hatched, they might mill about for days while their bodies prepare to spawn. When the mood is right, the females will build gravel nests and lay their eggs. The males then fertilize the eggs. If you spot a large fish turned on its side flipping its tail, know that you're a lucky witness to that magic moment. The tail flip is the adult female nest-building maneuver; there are sure to be one or two lurking males eager and ready for her to lay thousands of eggs.
There are several locations near the Salmon River that are renowned for being popular Chinook spawning sites, notes Sawtooth Hatchery manager Brent Snider. But curious spectators should be respectful, he advises. Keep voices low and observe the fish discreetly from the shore or bridges.
Snider recommends checking Alturas Lake Creek near the road to Petitt Lake to see spawning Chinook. You can search for salmon from the bridge that crosses the creek. If you don't have any luck, try Huckleberry Creek, near the stream's junction with the Salmon River. In late August, Chinook have also been spotted at Indian riffles, one mile below the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River.
Kokanee salmon, a smaller species of Sockeye, can often be seen spawning in Fishhook Creek near Redfish Lake. Unlike the anadromous, ocean-seeking Sockeye that most are familiar with, these fish live out their entire lives within the lake, but move to the creek to spawn in mid August. A good place to look for them is from the Fishhook Creek bridge near the Forest Service visitor's center.
Those who don't want to risk the disappointment of not finding any creek spawners can head to the fish hatchery. Located about 8 miles south of Stanley on Highway 75, this state fish and game facility harbors hatchery fish that return from their Pacific voyage, as well as other native and non-native species. They "spawn" returned hatchery Chinook every Monday and Thursday, and visitors with a strong stomach are welcome to watch from an observation deck. Although the hatchery spawning process is quite different from what goes on in the wild, some might find it interesting. "First we determine the ripe females," Snider describes, "Then we stun the fish, remove the eggs, strip the milt from the males and fertilize the eggs." Curious as to what "milt" is? Find out and learn more fun fish facts at the hatchery's informative interpretive center.
Whether your own salmon journey involves a trek to a tributary of the Salmon River or a visit to the hatchery, make it soon. The Chinook and Kokanee generally finish their business before the end of September.
For more information, contact the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery (208) 774-3684.