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Kokanee making its run

Andy Bourelle

Thousands of deep red kokanee salmon fill the 10-mile stretch of Taylor Creek. They float in the water, pointed upstream, fighting against the current. The males and females pair up, lay and fertilize eggs and protect their nests. Soon they will die.

It’s that time of year again.

Here in plenty of time for this weekend’s ninth annual Kokanee Salmon Festival, spawning salmon fill the creek that runs from Fallen Leaf Lake down to Lake Tahoe.

“Out of all of the streams in the Tahoe Basin, if you were a kokanee salmon, you would want to come here to spawn,” said Michael St. Michel, visitor center director for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

The forest service regulates the outflow from Fallen Leaf Lake, allowing a more steady current in Taylor Creek. While other streams may dry up or freeze over, Taylor Creek provides constantly flowing water and more oxygen to the eggs.

The other reason Taylor Creek is the ideal place for spawning, St. Michel said, is because most of the fish were born there. They try to come back to the same stream they were born into, and even try to return to within a couple meters of the location of their birth.

The kokanee salmon, which typically are 3 to 4 years old at the time of spawning, show up to Taylor Creek each year around the end of September. Last year, they were late; this year, they are early.

“There are literally thousands of them,” St. Michel said. “It looks like it’s going to be a really good run.”

Forest service fishery biologists have estimated up to 40,000 will try to spawn in the creek this year. The stream can handle redds – nests for fish – for about 22,000. However, Taylor Creek is the “official kokanee salmon egg-taking station for California,” and each year the California Department of Fish and Game takes the excess eggs to keep kokanee populations healthy throughout California.

The females’ average length is 13 to 14 inches long, and the males are 15 to 16 inches long. Normally, their backs are dark blue and their sides are silvery, but as spawning season approaches, both sexes blush, or turn red. The jaw of the male develops a hook, and a hump forms in its back.

Kokanee salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka – are land-locked versions of ocean-going sockeye salmon. They are not native to Lake Tahoe but were introduced in the late 1940s, originally intended to be food for larger native fish.

In the 1940s, kokanee were planted in 35 California lakes but have established self-perpetuating populations only in 10.

The kokanee require cool 42- to 55-degree water temperatures for spawning, dictating exactly when they swim up Taylor Creek.

By the time the kokanee reach the stream, St. Michel said, they have lost their stomachs and have only one thing left to do before they die – reproduce.

The female releases her eggs, the male fertilizes them and then they protect the nest for the rest of their lives, which is only a few days. Some are so exhausted from fighting the current and fighting each other for nesting areas that they die before spawning.

St. Michel said Taylor Creek will be full of dead salmon after the spawning season is over. The dead kokanee provide a winter food source to bald eagles, gulls, great blue herons, raccoons, coyotes and other animals. Ducks dig up and eat many kokanee eggs.

“It’s all a part of the life cycle,” he said.

Some eggs are washed down stream, some are eaten by predators and some hatch but are eaten by larger fish.

“Only about 1 percent of the 800 to 1,200 eggs a female lays ever come back to spawn,” St. Michel said.

The kokanee salmon can be seen by Lake Tahoe residents and visitors by going to the U.S. Forest Service Visitors Center on Highway 89 and walking the Rainbow Trail. An underground stream-profile chamber is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The park area is open from sunrise to sunset.

“This kind of gives people a better appreciation of the importance of Taylor Creek, and of streams throughout the basin,” St. Michel said. “People can see what’s important in a creek and see that they are important for all fish species.”

The kokanee salmon are expected to remain through October.

“A lot of people have seen something like this on TV, or read about it somewhere, but most people don’t get to see it first hand,” St. Michel said. “It’s kind of neat to have something like this right here at Lake Tahoe.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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