Kokanee put on final show
They live for about three years before smells and tastes in Lake Tahoe command them back to die in the creek where they were born.
Kokanee salmon are not timid in the face of death. Knowing their time is up, they instinctively stop eating and power their way up Taylor Creek to look for a mate. Malnutrition turns the kokanee’s normal silver and blue to brilliant red and green.
This year, despite a creek that’s 50 percent shallower because of a dry winter, the Forest Service expects 40,000 salmon, an average number, to spawn and die.
“It’s an average run,” said Jeff Reiner, a U.S. Forest Service aquatic biologist and hydrologist. “We’ve seen some big schools in the lake. We haven’t peaked yet.”
Reiner expects spawning to peak this coming weekend. At the 12th annual Kokanee Salmon Festival on Sunday, hundreds of people peered at the edge of the water to watch nature at work.
“Do they come up the stream in pairs? How do they pick the right males?” asked Anne Jeton of Minden. Reiner answered females do the choosing. He said he has no clue as to what traits they look for in a mate.
The females also decide where to make the redd, or nest. They whip their tails over creek bottom gravel to clear a place to lay 150 to 600 small pink eggs. Males spray the eggs with milt to fertilize them. By then, the males have developed a hooked jaw and a hump in their back that helps them protect the redd and intimidate any competitive fish.
Reiner expects salmon to continue to spawn in the creek, which lies between Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake, until the first week of November. The fish die several days after they mate. Their rotting bodies feed bears, raccoons and even young kokanee.
The offspring are born between January and March. After they hatch inside a bed of gravel, the salmon remain hidden in the rocks for two weeks. During that time they learn to live in water all the while sucking nutrition from a yolk sac. It usually takes three to eight weeks for a newborn kokanee to join a school swim for the lake.
Kokanee are descendants of sockeye salmon, fish that look like kokanees but are much larger and live in oceans. Biologists at the North Shore introduced kokanee to Lake Tahoe first in the 1940s and again in the 1960s, Reiner said.
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