Mother Nature messing with spawning ritual
It’s probably the warm temperatures keeping the kokanee salmon from making their yearly exodus from Lake Tahoe to Taylor Creek to spawn.
Or it could be a bum year in the salmon cycle, said Jeff Reiner, an aquatic biologist at the U.S. Forest Service. But the 14th Annual Kokanee Salmon Festival will happen this weekend whether or not fish show up.
The last time the agency had the free, education-driven festival without fish was in 1997, said Gay Eitel, an employee at the Forest Service’s Taylor Creek Visitor Center.
“One year in the mid-80s we had a run of a few hundred,” Reiner said. “Their cycles are boom and bust, especially at Tahoe because the water is so sterile. We want the lake clean but that means there’s not a lot of food for fish. But I’m still hopeful (fish will show up). I’ve seen this happen before.”
Reiner remembers one year when the creek contained only a couple of hundred fish, but by the next day thousands had arrived to spawn.
The number of fish which spawn in the creek has increased over the years. A typical run now ranges from 40,000 to 60,000 fish, said Mike St. Michel, whose job at the Forest Service is to help people understand nature.
“We need some frosty nights; hopefully that will trigger it,” St. Michel said. “It’s always hard to have a salmon festival without salmon. We’ve got our fingers crossed.”
The water in Taylor Creek may look low but it always does this time of year, St. Michel said. It’s actually flowing slightly stronger than normal. Still, on Wednesday, the Forest Service plans to release water from a dam at Fallen Leaf Lake which feeds Taylor Creek. This is to make sure the fish have room to mate. Fallen Leaf’s cold water may also help trigger a kokanee run, Reiner said.
Reiner snorkeled in Lake Tahoe two weeks ago to look for the silvery blues and reds of the kokanee. He didn’t see the fish schooled in the lake off Taylor Creek the way they normally are at a depth of about 60 feet. He did see some schools near Cascade Creek. Reiner said he plans to snorkel again on Wednesday.
The festival this Saturday and Sunday is a chance to learn about the life cycle of the kokanee. Every October, kokanee that are 3 or 4 years old swim from the lake to the creek to spawn.
After a female kokanee lays eggs in the gravel beds, a male fertilizes them by spraying a substance called milt. The male, which develops a hooked mouth while spawning, then guards the eggs as best he can by fighting other fish.
The spawning process takes about 21 days and leaves the adult fish dead from malnutrition. The salmon stop eating in August and by September or early October colder temperatures and scent draw them to the creek. This process changes the color of the fish from silvery blue to brilliant reds and greens.
The mealy dead kokanee become food for ducks, raccoons, bears and other wildlife. Only about 1 percent of the eggs laid and fertilized survive the spawning process and become viable fish. Some of the remaining 99 percent are harvested, taken to a hatchery and get planted throughout California.
Kokanee were introduced to Lake Tahoe in 1944.
The festival typically draws about 5,000 people a day. If you miss the festival, that doesn’t mean you can’t check out the fish. They typically spawn through the month of October. Kokanee can be observed in a profile chamber next to the visitor center.
In October, the profile chamber will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The visitor center will be open during the week from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on the weekend from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Parking for the visitor center is limited. The Forest Service plans to run a shuttle during the festival between the visitor center and Camp Richardson, where more parking is available. For more information, call (530) 543-2674.
— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org