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Utah rivers will soon turn red as kokanee salmon begin their arduous journey

Published September 9, 2013 9:24 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah rivers are about to run red. What's more, the red will be heading upstream.

There is, however, no cause for alarm.

Introduced kokanee salmon make their annual spawning runs each fall in an effort to propagate the species in the second driest state in the nation.

And if efforts more than a century ago had come to fruition, the Jordan River in the Salt Lake Valley, along with many others, would have been among them.

In addition to providing a rare and tasty angling experience, the introduced kokanee salmon of several Utah fisheries also give people who always have wanted to witness one of nature's most amazing annual migrations the chance to experience the spectacle.

Robust populations of the land-locked salmon draw crowds each September to Sheep Creek, a tributary to Flaming Gorge Reservoir and on the Strawberry River, which flows into Strawberry Reservoir. Other reservoirs with salmon runs, on a smaller scale and less accessible to the public, include Porcupine and Causey reservoirs in northern Utah, Stateline Reservoir on the North Slope of the Uinta Mountains and a small number in Moon Lake on the South Slope of the Uintas.

The only thing missing from Utah's salmon runs is the congregations of bears feeding on the fish, as is common in Alaska.

"I guess I am kind of surprised that I've never seen a bear in Sheep Creek during the run," said Ryan Mosley, Flaming Gorge Project Leader for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "Other animals move into the area and take advantage of the bounty."

Otters, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and a wide variety of birds tune into the annual event for a quick meal, but Mosley said only the otters are catching the salmon before they die after depositing eggs and milt in the grave of Sheep Creek.

There are two salmon runs in Sheep Creek each year. The first, Mosley said, has started as early as Aug. 22 and as late as Sept. 10. A late run typically starts sometime from the middle of October to early November. The numbers of fish have ranged in recent years from a low of 400 to 1,500. Mosley said if people want to see the bright red colors kokanee — recognized as land-locked sockeye salmon —

are known for, they better catch the early run.

"Some years there is some crossover between the runs," he said. "Just as the early run is tapering off, the late run is starting and the fish are dramatically different in appearance. The bright red fish are in the early run and the late fish are a dark gray to almost black."

In addition to the natural laying of and fertilizing of eggs, state biologists trap and collect eggs from the kokanee to be raised in hatcheries and released at Flaming Gorge. More than 360,000 eggs were collected from late run fish in 2012.

Some of the fish at Strawberry Reservoir came from Sheep Creek at Flaming Gorge soon after the massive Wasatch County reservoir was chemically treated to remove rough fish in 1990. Other eggs were collected from Porcupine Reservoir and kokanee fisheries in Colorado.

While the fishing viewing event at Sheep Creek (Sept. 14) is limited to information from biologists about kokanee in the creek and in the reservoir, the Kokanee Days viewing event at Strawberry also includes a tour of the fish capture station on the Strawberry River and gives people a chance to see eggs and milt actually being collected from the salmon.

Roger Wilson, chief of aquatics for the DWR, said more than 600 fish already have turned up in the fish trap at Strawberry. The salmon run at Strawberry was as high as 14,000 in the late 1990s, but only about 800 made the trip from the reservoir last year.

"Salmon runs are highly variable and unpredictable," Wilson said. "There are many factors influencing the run from year to year."

A new population of kokanee was introduced at Electric Lake on the Wasatch Plateau earlier this year when 30,000 fingerling were released. Wilson said some eager males could show up as soon as fall 2014, but the first real numbers won't appear until 2015.

Wilson said there are no immediate plans for other kokanee introductions in Utah and certainly nothing like the efforts of decades ago to bring a wide range of salmon to the state.

Federal wildlife agencies provided king, Atlantic, chum and silver salmon through the years, but only the kokanee have taken hold. Salmon were released in Utah waters including the Jordan, Ogden, Weber, Bear and San Pitch rivers. Fish Lake, Scofield Reservoir, Panguitch Lake and Navajo Lake also have been stocked with kokanee in the past.

"Kokanee have been a nice addition to the Utah creel and also to the Watchable Wildlife program," Wilson said. "We have had good results with the kokanee, but given our past efforts with the other salmon, I doubt we will go there again."

brettp@sltrib.com

Utah's free salmon viewing days

Sept. 14 • Kokanee Salmon Day is being held at Sheep Creek, a tributary to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. State wildlife biologists will be on hand to answer questions about the salmon run Sheep Creek. There is a turnout on Scenic Byway (State Road 44) about six miles south of Manila.

Sept. 21 • Kokanee Salmon Day is being held at the Strawberry Reservoir Visitor Center and fish trap/egg-taking facility from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fisheries biologists will be on site to answer questions about the salmon run in the Strawberry River and visitors can watch as biologists extract eggs and milt from the kokanee. The visitor center is 20 miles east of Heber City, just off of Highway 40. History of Salmon Introductions in Utah

• King, also known as chinook, salmon were among the first fish species brought to Utah. Kings were introduced in 1873 with 150,000 fry placed in the Jordan River near South Jordan. King salmon fry also were released in the Ogden River, Weber River, Blacksmith Fork River, Box Elder Creek, Twin Spring Creek, Bear River, Silver Creek, Jennings Pond, Mill Creek, Spring Run and the San Pitch River.

• Sebago salmon, a landlocked Atlantic salmon, first arrived in Utah in 1873, but records show the first introduction took place in Spring Run in Murray in 1901. Records on Sebago salmon are rare, but it is believed they were planted in Strawberry Reservoir, Scofield Reservoir and Fish Lake.

• Kokanee salmon, a landlocked sockeye salmon, are the only member of the family still found in Utah waters. They originally were introduced in 1922 at Bear Lake. The next introduction did not take place until 1937 when Strawberry Reservoir received 98,000 fry. Panguitch Lake, Navajo Lake and Scofield Reservoir also received kokanee fry. Kokanee can be caught by Utah anglers at Flaming Gorge, Strawberry, Causey and Porcupine reservoirs.

• Chum, or dog, salmon are similar to sockeye salmon, but they tend to grow larger. Chum were planted in 1939 and 1940 at Strawberry Reservoir and Fish Lake. Chum salmon are among the least-prized of salmon when it comes to sport fishing.

• Silver salmon, also known as coho salmon, first were introduced in 1925 to Strawberry Reservoir and Fish Lake. Between 1926 and 1939, they were planted in the Logan River, Blacksmith Fork River, Bear Lake, Minersville Reservoir, Puffer Lake, Panguitch Lake, Navajo Lake, Utah Lake, Scofield Reservoir, Nebo Reservoir, Granddaddy Lake, Mirror Lake and Echo Reservoir. All told, more than 5.4 million silver salmon were planted in Utah.

Sources: "Game, Fur Animal and Fish: Introductions to Utah," Boris Popov and Jessop Low; "Assessment of the Effects of Fish Stocking in the State of Utah Past, Present and Future," Paul Holden, Steven Zucker, Paul Abate and Richard Valdez for BIO/WEST, Inc.