Kokanee making final run
Every night beavers chop down small trees with their teeth near Taylor Creek and make dams.
But in October, when kokanee salmon need to splash, kick and flop their way up the creek to spawn and then die, U.S. Forest Service employees remove the dams to make way for the fish.
On Tuesday morning, as snow fell, a dam came out and hundreds of brilliantly colored kokanee rushed up the creek. With the wooden wall gone, the number of kokanee in the creek at least tripled, said Gay Eitel, a Forest Service naturalist who has studied the creek for 14 years.
“By this weekend, we may have the best number of fish for the festival we’ve ever seen,” said Eitel, who noted the fish were bigger and had brighter colors than last year.
The salmon don’t need to have their energy sapped by a dam. They need to save their strength to fight their way upstream, often swimming up over rocks, to find a mate and keep one.
For male kokanee, keeping a mate can mean using the hooked jaw they develop before spawning to rip into another male, sometimes killing him. Females limit their fighting to clipping at the tails of other females as they stake out nesting space on the creek bottom.
Once they pick a spot, their tails whip across gravel beds to clear algae and make room for the hundreds of eggs they will lay. Males then fertilize the eggs by spraying a substance called milt.
In all, the spawning process takes about 21 days, and leaves both fish involved dead. They die of malnutrition. When an internal alarm goes off around August, they stop eating and wait till colder temperatures and watery scents draw them from Lake Tahoe to the creek.
Lack of food accounts for the dramatic change in the color of the fish, which turn from silvery blue to fluorescent red with spots of green. By the time they swim to their death, the kokanee are either 3 or 4 years old. Come November, 40,000 to 60,000 salmon will have spawned and died in the creek.
The dead fish become food for raccoons, bears and even newborn kokanee, which are born between January and March.
They hatch inside a bed of gravel and remain hidden in the rocks for two weeks. They learn to live in water while sucking nutrition from a yolk sac. It usually takes three to eight weeks before the kokanee form a school and swim for the lake.
Kokanee are descendants of sockeye salmon, fish that look like kokanees but are much larger and live in oceans. Kokanees were introduced to the lake in the 1940s.
The festival this weekend normally draws about 5,000 visitors a day, many of whom are children brought by their parents to witness nature at work.
Wildlife experts set up exhibits and explain why the fish do what they do. And Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care will hold one of its biggest fund-raiser events, selling salmon barbecue dinners and hot dogs. The salmon served is not from the creek but from the Pacific Ocean.
Also at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Eitel will perform a dramatization of the fish life cycle at visitor center amphitheater. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, the Recycled String Band, who are from Yosemite and specialize in environmental education, will perform.
Once the festival ends, the fish spawning continues and the public is welcome to walk along the creek and watch. Also, a stream profile chamber just yards from the creek is open seven days a week. The visitor center is open every weekend through the end of October from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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