Kokanee provide education, fun
Kokanee salmon splash their tails above the water of Taylor Creek and wriggle between its rocks. Every fall the brilliant red fish swim from the lake up the creek to mate in its shallow cool waters.
Nearly 50,000 salmon are expected to make their way up the creek that flows between Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe. As the fish smell and taste their way back to their birthplace, their silvery blue color turns bright red with patches of green, blue and a hint of yellow. The males, signaling that they’re ready to mate, develop a hooked jaw and a hump in their back. On average, the salmon are three years old when they make their final journey upstream.
In order to ensure a new generation, a female cleans out an area of gravel in the river where she lays 150 to 600 small pink eggs. Then a male fertilizes the eggs by spraying milt over them.
“I think it’s pretty fascinating,” said Margaret Monttashed, a 45-year-old who came to see the fish. “And their colors are so pretty.”
Margaret and her husband Mark moved from Livermore, Calif. to Tahoe Paradise in August to “semi-retire.”
“It’s amazing to see how nature works,” said Mark, a 58-year-old electrician. “And now that we’re living here we get a chance to enjoy it. I’ve been coming up here since the 50s. This is my dream to come up here to live. I’m not a crazy person who likes to gamble all the time. … We come up here to enjoy the mountains.”
Sunday U. S. Forest Service naturalist Colin Burrows estimated there were about 5,000 salmon in the creek with many more expected to arrive through November. Beside the creek Burrows displayed a male and female kokanee in a small fish tank and fielded questions from visitors.
“Excuse me sir, can we catch the fish in this river?” said Lukas Holst, a 7-year-old from Tahoma, Calif. Burrows answered, “There’s no fishing on this river. It’s been closed.”
And even if fishing the creek were legal while the kokanee mate from October to mid-November, people probably wouldn’t want to eat what they catch. Once the fish enter the creek they stop eating and that causes them to begin digesting themselves, hence the color change.
“They’re digesting fats and tissue and their bodies are breaking down for lack of food,” Burrows said. “Basically they’re like fish oatmeal.”
Newly spawned kokanee, crawfish, raccoons, eagles and an occasional bear all dine on the thousands of salmon that die of starvation while protecting their eggs.
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