Luke Jones, 6, his brother Matthew, 8, and his cousin Paul Rooney, 11, squatted along the bank of Taylor Creek on Wednesday to watch thousands of bright red Kokanee salmon swim upstream in one of nature's most dramatic and visible life cycles.
"It's pretty cool," Luke Jones said as one of the larger males leapt against the current.
The salmon return annually to spawn in Taylor Creek, and for the past 23 years, Lake Tahoe has celebrated the event and the changing seasons with their Kokanee Salmon Festival the first weekend of October.
"The salmon are always there. As far as I know, they've never missed the party. It's one of those cool natural phenomenon that's actually predictable," U.S. Forest Service naturalist Lindsay Gusses said.
The free family event this Saturday and Sunday will offer interactive booths run by agencies in the basin, a Japanese fish print workshop, a Wild Things onstage show with live animals, an interactive children's play that acts out the drama of the Kokanee, a salmon barbecue - no, these fish don't come from Taylor Creek - and much more.
The Kokanee, a landlocked cousin to the Sockeye salmon, are a non-native species to Lake Tahoe. They were introduced to the lake in the 1940s when a few of the fish escaped from a Tahoe City hatchery, or so the story goes, Gusses said. Since that time, Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists have introduced the salmon to the lake for sport fishing.
According to the USFS, the animals adapted well to the alpine lake. The Kokanee are a deep water fish that doesn't live on the same level as the lake trout and they're not competitors when it comes to food sources.
When the salmon are in the lake, their scales sparkle silvery-blue. They spend three to five years in the deeper water before migrating to the creek's mouth when temperatures start to cool in the fall. Only then do the fish begin to turn red as they prepare to spawn.
The males develop a hooked nose, or a kype, and a humped back. It's territorial behavior, Gusses said, because once the fish enter the stream, it's a fight for real estate. The Kokanee return to the same area where they hatched, but the traffic in the stream is heavy with other also salmon looking for prime territory.
Over the course of about a month and a half, between 20,000 and 80,000 Kokanee will battle up Taylor Creek to lay their eggs and protect the hatch for as long as they can. Once the salmon lay their eggs, the adults only have about 10 days before they die, Gusses said.
The bodies decompose quickly, but the stream still clogs with deceased salmon for a while. It's a hunters' feast, Gusses said, but you're more likely to catch a hungry mallard or raccoon than some of the forests larger predators.
"We can't guarantee bear sightings. You have to keep in mind that the bears here are black bears and they eat primarily vegetation. The fishing is a learned behavior. It's not instinctual like it is for the brown bears," Gusses said.
"And our bears here go for easier food. It's a lot of work to catch a salmon," she continued.
Once the salmon turn red, they're not fit for human consumption either, Gusses said. By the time October comes around, they fish are already pretty rotten, and it better just to sit back and enjoy the show, without dinner.