Student Lesson 1: INTRODUCTION TO THE SPECIES AND LIFE STAGES OF SALMON
Recommended for grades 3-8
Salmon are unique and remarkable fish, revered by many. Take a moment to consider some of the many reasons why salmon are valuable:
- Catching salmon for fun and to eat is fun. They are big, gorgeous fish, challenging to catch, and delicious. Have you ever fished for salmon? If you have, you certainly couldn’t forget it.
- Salmon is a delicious, nutritious and prized source of food. People buy salmon at the supermarket and at restaurants for meals. Cats and dogs love salmon, too!
- Commercial fishermen depend on salmon for their livelihood. They catch the salmon that you buy at the supermarket and eat at restaurants.
Gallery: Amazing Salmon!
- Salmon are an important biological resource in nature. Many animals in our ecosystems feed on salmon. Resident Puget Sound orca pods thrive or decline depending on salmon for most of their food.. Animals such as bears and birds feed on the salmon that return from the sea to spawn in our rivers. Returning salmon also bring something you might not even consider: they bring nutrients from the sea which play an important role in feeding our forests.
- Northwest Native Americans have depended on the annual return of salmon for food for thousands of years. Salmon are a treasured cultural symbol among native American communities.
- Salmon have “intrinsic value” which means they are valuable simply because they are what they are: unique, wonderous fish with a remarkable life story. We value knowing that salmon exist in our local streams and in our oceans. They are part of the biodiversity that makes the natural world wild and beautiful.
- Salmon are an important “indicator species.” What we mean is that the health of our salmon population tells us a lot about the health of our environment, which, in turn, determines how well our environment can support us.
In this chapter, you will embark on your journey to learn what makes salmon special and unique. We hope that when you are done, you can describe for yourself why salmon are so important in so many ways.
Let’s start learning.
Salmonid Species and Life Stages
- Streamlined bodies
- Rounded scales
- Fins that spread out with rays
- Forked tails
- A single row of sharp teeth
- Fins in particular locations on their bodies (see picture) (FIND PICTURE WHICH DISPLAYS AND LABELS FINS)
Salmon are some of the great migrating species in the world.
Salmon are one of the most spectacular of all migrating fish species in the world. They are born in freshwater, but migrate to the ocean (saltwater) where they will spend most of their adult lives. There they feed upon the ocean’s abundant resources of food, travelling thousands of miles along the same ocean paths as their ancestors. After a few years, salmon feel an instinctive urge to return home, often thousands of miles to the freshwater stream in which they were born. There, just like their parents, they will spawn to produce the next generation of salmon, and die, leaving behind their carcass to feed the forest, wildlife, and even their young salmon.
Salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they spend part of their life in freshwater and part in saltwater. It’s a big word, and one you should remember. Say it out loud and repeat: “uh-NA-druh-muss.”
The mysteries of how salmon make their remarkable journey
How salmon are able to migrate thousands of miles — just like their ancestors have done for millions of years — comes down to: 1) imprinting and 2) instincts.
During their early stages of life, as salmon eggs in stream beds develop into tiny salmon, they are imprinted with the unique, chemical markers of their home stream. Salmon have a remarkable sense of smell, and they memorize the unique chemistry of their home water. To salmon, only one stream smells like home.
Within their genetic fiber are also powerful instincts, which drive and guide them. When salmon reach a certain age, they leave their home stream and migrate from their freshwater home to the ocean — where food resources are rich and they can thrive and grow to full-size adults. Instincts continue to drive and guide them in their new ocean homeas they swim the same thousands of miles of ocean paths as their ancestors. Along the way, they feed upon rich ocean resources that help them grow to full-sized adults.
When salmon reach full maturity their instincts and their imprinting drive and guide them toward a final journey back home. They will give everything they have and endure much hardship to return to the freshwater streams in which they were born. They do this for one reason: to spawn — to produce the next generation. Their life cycle is complete, as all Pacific salmon die after spawning.
In the next lesson we will begin to learn much more about the remarkable life cycle of salmon.
What is a life cycle?
A salmon’s life ends in the same place it begins. Think of each generation of salmon as a cycle. Within each cycle, a salmon matures from a tiny egg to a big, strong spawning salmon. All of the steps from beginning to end are their life cycle, their “circle of life.”
To teach you about the lifecycle of salmon, we choose to begin our lesson near the end of a salmon’s life… during spawning.
Spawning is the act of reproducing (creating new salmon). A returning adult female salmon has spent years in the ocean, growing strong, preparing for her final journey home. She stores up body fat to give her energy for the journey. She holds anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 eggs in her belly. It is precious cargo. It is the next generation.
A returning adult male salmon also has spent years in the ocean preparing for this journey. Just like the female, his instincts and imprinting have driven him to his home stream to find a female with which to spawn. He is aggressive and protective. He will compete with other males to pair up with a female and fertilize her eggs.
Once again, acting by instinct, the female salmon selects a stream bed best suited to lay her eggs. Before doing so, turns on her side and thrashes her powerful tale, creating a depression in the gravel while cleaning it out at the same time. This is her nest, which we call a “redd.”
When she deposits her eggs, her male partner immediately swims alongside and fertilizes the eggs. Then the female nudges the gravel back over the eggs to protect them both from predators and the current of the stream. Within just a few days, having deposited fertilized eggs in the redd, both the male and female salmon reach the end of their lives and die. Their bodies decay and bring nutrients to the forest and wildlife.
Gallery: Spawning Salmon
A FRESHWATER BEGINNING:
In a few weeks, the eggs start hatching. After hatching, the small fish – called alevin or “sac fry” – spend their first eight weeks hiding in the gravel. Gradually, they absorb their yolk sac, which has provided them all of their nutrition until now. With the yolk sack depleted, they are now “fry” and must emerge from the gravel to begin foraging for food. The fry are only about one inch long and they start by eating microscopic insects.
Some species of salmon – such as pink and chum – head directly for the ocean as soon as they emerge from the gravel, when they are only about one inch long. But the other species of salmon such as Issaquah Creek’s Chinook and Coho spend several months to as much as a year or more in a river or lake before migrating to the estuary and then to the ocean. In a few months (the amount of time varies by each species of salmon), they begin their journey.
These small, ocean-bound salmon are referred to as “smolts.”
Gallery: the Salmon Life Cycle
IN THE OCEAN:
In the ocean, salmon grow rapidly by feeding on the ocean’s rich food supply. They will spend two to five years developing into strong, mature salmon. When they are fully mature, they embark on a journey back to the rivers and home streams where they were born, and where they, just like their parents, will spawn to create the next generation. The life cycle of the Pacific salmon begins anew.
Washington has five species of Pacific salmon:
- Chinook (king)
- Coho (silver)
- Sockeye (red)
- Chum (dog)
- Pink (humpy)
The chinook (or king) is the largest salmon species, averaging 18 to 24 pounds with up to 127 pounds recorded. Chinook have small black spots on the back, dorsal fin, and tail fin. The gums at the base of the teeth are gray. Fall run chinook are robust and deep bodied, while spring chinook are smaller, slimmer, and not as brightly colored when spawning.
Chinook fry spend 3 to 4 months in fresh water. Spring chinook migrate earlier, but delay spawning until fall, and they spawn in smaller tributaries. Their fry spend a year or more in fresh water.
Chum, also known as “dog” salmon from the large canine teeth of spawning males, are the second largest Pacific salmon, weighing up to 40 pounds. Spawning males develop reddish vertical bars on their flanks; females have a reddish lateral band. Although chum are fast swimmers, they are not good jumpers, and they do not migrate far inland to spawn.
Chum fry migrate to the sea soon after they emerge from the gravel. They spend up to seven years at sea, but four years is typical.
Coho (or silver) salmon are powerfully built, and they can jump falls that most salmon cannot negotiate. They have small black spots on their backs and the upper lobe of the tail fin. The gums at the base of the teeth are white. Although sea run coho have silver sides, spawning males develop bright red sides and greenish backs. Spawning females are paler. The jaws of spawning males often become grotesquely hooked.
Most coho spend 18 months at sea, staying in coastal waters, and they return to their home streams as 3 year olds weighing 8 to 10 pounds. The fry spend more than a year living in streams.
Pink salmon rarely travel far upriver to spawn; they are typically found in shorter coastal streams. When the fry emerge from the gravel, they already have the silvery color of smolts, and they migrate directly to sea. Pinks spend a fixed 18 months at sea; thus, all returning pink salmon were born in the same year, and different year classes do not interbreed. Also worth noting: Pink salmon return to Puget Sound rivers only in odd numbered years.
Pinks average 2 to 5 pounds. Sea run pinks are easily distinguished by the large oval spots on their backs and tail fins. Spawning males develop a large hump on their backs, earning the species its other name, “humpback.” Some biologists think the males’ conspicuous hump diverts the attention of predators away from the females.
Sea run sockeye have dark blue backs with few spots and bright silver sides. When they enter fresh water after a typical 2 years at sea, both males and females develop bright red bodies and green heads. The males’ bodies become laterally compressed, a hump grows behind the head, the jaws become hooked, and sharp canine teeth appear.
Sockeye fry, after emerging from the gravel, migrate to freshwater lakes, where they spend 1 to 2 years before heading out to sea. Some populations, called kokanee, spend their entire lives in freshwater lakes.
Kokanee (land-locked sockeye salmon)
Student Learning Activity
NEED TO INSERT TYEE MAP.
You can approach these activities in a number of ways, so follow the specific instructions from your teacher:
- Read Tyee’s Magnificent Journey.
- Older students: 1) read only part of Tyee’s Magnificent Journey (for example, through the part where Tyee enters the Columbia on her return journey), 2) then complete the activity “Hooks and Ladders,” ADD A LINK TO HOOKS AND LADDERS HERE and 3) write the remainder of Tyee’s story in your journal.
- Younger students: Read the story together out loud in class, pausing to discuss each “stage” in the salmon life cycle. Can you list all the things salmon need to complete each stage?
- Have students record Tyee’s journey on Tyee’s map (note: the map is NOT to scale!). You can do this as you read, or you can read the story, then come back to it to help you complete the map. Remember that the story notes the months and years that Tyee passes points identified on the map. Use colored pens or pencils to trace where Tyee goes (one color for her downstream and ocean journey, another for her return trip). Write down the month and year Tyee passes these points, such as “September 1998” (in red, for example) and “enters ocean – June 2000,” (in the color that you use to trace her journey to the ocean). Use any year to start that you want. If she is conceived in September of 2020, she:
- should be passing lower Granite Dam in April 2022
- should enter the ocean in June of 2022
- should pass Sitka, Alaska in August of 2023
- should pass Anchorage, Alaska in October of 2023
- should begin the return trip to the Columbia River in July of 2024
- should enter the Columbia River in March of 2025
- should be back in her home stream to spawn in September of 2025.
You could also use a map drawn to scale to trace Tyee’s route; this allows you to calculate the number of miles traveled between each point. A large classroom map can also be used with colored yarn to trace Tyee’s route.
Following a teacher-led introduction to salmon and their life cycle, read “Tyee’s Magnificent Journey,” and then draw and label the life cycle stages of Tyee in your journal. Use different colors for freshwater and saltwater stages. Younger students: trace your hand in your journal and label your fingers with each of the five species of Pacific salmon.
Reading: Tyee’s Magnificent Journey
A miracle. That’s what Native Americans called the vast runs of salmon that returned each year from the ocean. Returning to the streams where their lives began from a huge ocean, these fish were great and magical spirits. Even today, the life cycle of a salmon seems miraculous. The long journey that salmon make from the gravel in a stream to the ocean and back again to spawn is full of dangers and requires remarkable endurance.
Salmon lay between 3,000 and 5,000 eggs in a nest in the stream gravel. But did you know that, on average, only two fish return from all those eggs? If the water level in their stream drops too low, thousands of eggs can be wiped out. Birds, bigger fish, bears, seals, and sea lions take their share of salmon. Nature has provided for this loss by enabling salmon to lay these thousands of eggs.
But nature alone cannot make up for what people have done to the salmon. Dams block large areas of the wild salmon’s spawning grounds. Roads and towns developed around and over salmon streams. Logging and farming practices fouled rivers with sediment. So did pollution from cities, factories, and houses. Moreover, catching salmon became too easy. Salmon runs became smaller and smaller.
Today, some types of salmon are in danger of disappearing forever. The home of the Pacific salmon — the northeastern Pacific Ocean, and the great river systems that empty into it — are no longer the kind of homes they once were for Pacific salmon. Humans were at first slow to recognize what was happening to the salmon of the Pacific Northwest. Good places for salmon to mate, lay eggs, and produce more salmon were being lost to human practices. The long journey from the spawning areas to the ocean and back again was being delayed or blocked by dams and flood control measures. People continued to fish for salmon in great numbers.
Eventually, people began to recognize that something had to be done to help salmon. A law called the Endangered Species Act was created, and it helped people to see that many kinds of salmon were in danger of being lost forever. Today, many people are working hard to help salmon survive. Fishermen, landowners, citizens and government are all part of this work.
To understand what needs to be done to help salmon, people must first learn about the remarkable life cycle and journey of a salmon. This story — about just one female Chinook salmon, “Tyee the Lucky” — will help you understand.
THE CYCLE BEGINS
High in the mountains of central Idaho, a creek too small to have a name runs cold and clear. Thousands of years in the past, great melting ice sheets left a U-shaped valley with a gravel floor. The gravel can still be seen on the creek bottom.
It is September. Leaves are yellow and brown, and frost covers everything along the stream bank. The first snowfall is not far away.
A reddish-brown female chinook salmon lies just under riffles of rushing water. She is battered and exhausted. She seems to be resting, perhaps waiting for something. Another salmon appears. He is darker, with cream- colored splotches on his body. He moves next to her, facing upstream as she is. These salmon are mating, or spawning.
They are Chinook salmon, also called “tyee” or “king” salmon. They are the largest and live the longest of any Pacific Northwest salmon. The female lays about 5,000 bright pink eggs in a depression in the gravel (called a redd), which she has dug with her tail. Then the male moves in to fertilize the eggs. Finally, the female moves just upstream. With her tail, she kicks up pebbles that drift down over the eggs, hiding and protecting them.
Now the eggs are protected from sunlight, strong currents and hungry animals. For the next four weeks or so, the eggs remain hidden in the gravel. If the redd is not disturbed the eggs will remain safe.
In a few weeks, the eggs begin to change. Inside each living egg, a head, eyes, and a body begin to take shape. Somewhere among this closely packed redd lies Tyee the Lucky. Salmon don’t usually have personal names, but this female is special. Read on to find out why she is called “lucky”.
Tyee is lucky that the water rushing through the gravel in the redd is only about 55 degrees Fahrenheit – perfect for a salmon. Warmer water could end her life early. She’s lucky, too, that there have been no sudden torrents of water. Heavy rainfall could increase the current in the stream, removing her gravel protection.
Upstream from Tyee’s redd, many riffles of water running over rocks mixes air into the water, giving it a rich oxygen supply. Without oxygen, the eggs would die.
Ducks and other birds, raccoons, and larger trout love to eat salmon eggs. But Tyee is hidden and protected in the stream gravel. Tyee the Lucky.
Tyee’s stream is a healthy one. It had been spared from heavy logging years ago because it was hard to get to. Then, not long ago, the stream and its banks were protected by laws passed to save salmon habitat. Before that, streams all around it had not been so lucky.
In one creek about the same size, a mining dredge once ripped up the streambed. Even though that was years ago, loose soil from the mining is still carried downstream by rainwater. This soil, or silt, covers the graveI in the stream, cutting off the stream’s oxygen-carrying water to the eggs. The eggs suffocate.
On another stream, grazing cattle had trampled the stream bank, releasing silt. Pesticides used on farm crops upstream had poisoned the eggs and fish during some years. Now, people were busy trying to bring this stream back to health. Cattle were fenced out of the stream, and farmers using pesticides were being more careful, or not using them at all. This stream was “on the mend.”
In other streams in the watershed, logging had been done right to the stream banks. These streams no longer had shade to cool the water. Many were choked with debris. Some streams had lots of silt from logging and road building. But at some places in the watershed, people were working to repair this damage. It would take time to repair all of it. The job seemed almost impossible. But the work was starting. Laws were being passed to make sure people protected streams, no matter what kind of work they were doing. People were working together to protect Tyee and her kind. It would take more – much more – of this kind of time, work, and money to make a difference.
Tyee didn’t know about all this damage or work to repair it. She was still an egg. Her stream was healthy.
FROM EGG TO FRY
It is winter at Tyee’s redd. Snow covers the ground. All is white but the stream itself. Thin ice sheets cling to the banks of the stream. Little can be heard except the soft gurgle of the stream. Nothing seems to be alive. But in the gravel, things are happening.
By Valentine’s Day, the eggs remaining alive have hatched. The hatchlings stay under the gravel. Tyee has transformed herself into a small creature called a sac fry (alevin). Her eyes are huge compared to the rest of her body.
An orange sack, called a yolk sac, hangs from her body. The yolk sac contains all the proteins, sugars, vitamins, and minerals she needs to grow. As she grows, the sac gets smaller.
One night in March, Tyee gets an urge to slip upward through the gravel. She emerges into the stream as a tiny fish, called a fry. Her eyes are still bugged out, and she is about the size of a fir needle. She stays away from the direct sunlight, in shallow pools near the edge of the creek where the current is not strong. Tyee darts around, feeding on tiny creatures. She is quicker than most – a good thing to be, because as she feeds, she is easy food for other fish, ducks, and herons. Tyee the lucky.
Some fry start their migration to the ocean as early as Mayor June. The creek gets shallow in July. Tyee lets the current take her downstream. She is in no hurry, and stops along the way under root wads, fallen trees, and boulders. These places make good resting and feeding stops. By the time the first Fall raIns come In October, she is in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
By September, Tyee has grown to a fingerling. She is well over three inches long. Scales protect the length of her body. Over the scales, a slime layer of mucus has formed to protect her from disease and help her slide through the water. She has developed faint oblong marks along her silver- colored sides to help hide her from predators.
Tyee is big enough now to be a real hunter. She snaps up mosquitoes and other insects that come near the water surface. She nabs an ant unlucky enough to have fallen into the water.
Her mouth helps her eat and breathe. She takes in water through the mouth and forces it out through the gills on each side of her head. The feathery gills contain blood vessels which – just like your lungs in air – take up oxygen from the water.
Tyee doesn’t have ears, but she can hear well. Low-frequency sounds vibrate through the water to a row of small holes along each side of her body. These holes open to nerves that let her “hear” danger coming. Salmon also have nostrils and a good sense of smell. They can smell predators and food.
Tyee can smell home too. As she travels farther from where she emerged from the gravel, she is also learning to get back, years later. Salmon can return to the stream of their birth using this learning. Humans call this homing, but they don’t yet understand how it works. Somehow, the smell, taste, or some other thing about the water in Tyee’s stream becomes lodged in her memory.
So far, life for Tyee has been mostly good. But she has been chased by more than one large fish. In August, a kingfisher perched on a branch above her took aim and headed straight for her. Thanks to her large eyes and quick reactions, she darted away before he got to her.
Not every young salmon is so lucky. In fact, only about 15 percent of the eggs in her redd made it through the fry stage. And conditions for her brothers and sisters were better that average. By the end of summer, only 750 salmon of the 5,000 eggs were still alive and feeding!
THE DOWNSTREAM JOURNEY
As Tyee begins the winter of her first year, her growth slows. There is not as much food, and she doesn’t seem to be as hungry. As the snow falls, she waits for another spring. In April, it finally comes. Snows begin to melt and spring rains begin. The water level rises and the runoff sweeps young salmon downstream.
Tyee lets the water do the work. She travels with her head upstream as the water carries her toward the unknown. Traveling at night to avoid predators, she feeds on midges, worms and snails. She is changing both inside and out, preparing for her life in salt water. With these changes, she becomes a smolt.
She enters the Salmon River, then the Snake, a larger river that forms the border between Idaho and Oregon. Other smolts from other streams join her in a mass migration to the sea. The Snake River rushes her along, then suddenly the current is almost gone. It is April, and Tyee has entered the reservoir for Lower Granite Dam.
This is the first major barrier to her migration to the ocean. Before dams were built, the trip to the ocean from her home stream might have taken three or four weeks. But the dams had slowed the water, and now the journey took closer to two months. Downstream, other dams await: Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor on the Snake River. When the Snake joins the Columbia River, four more dams await: McNary, John Day, The Dalles, and Bonneville. All of these dams have been built in the 1900s. The dams have been good – for people!
Dams make electricity by holding back the river water in large reservoirs, then letting it run through turbines. Falling water spins the turbines to make the electricity. This is a clean and cheap way to provide power for people. Dams also provide irrigation water for crops and help control flooding. The dams also have locks that allow barges to pass up and down the river, carrying goods and crops.
But from Tyee’s standpoint, dams are not all that great. The reservoirs behind the dams have little current, and her trip to the ocean takes much longer. Squawfish, walleye, and bass are waiting to make a lunch out of her all along the way. They all survive well in the slower water created by the dams.
Just passing a dam is hard for Tyee and her kind. At lower Granite Dam, a fish screen catches her just in time and guides her away from the whirling blades of the turbines.
At another dam, the water is high and one spill-way is open. Tyee is stunned for a short time after a fifty-foot drop over the spillway. She regains her senses just in time to escape from a gull waiting for her above the churning water.
Tyee’s luck holds as she travels down the Columbia, toward the ocean. Many of her kind were not so lucky. At each of the eight dams she has passed, 10 to 15 percent of the salmon smolts don’t make it.
People are working to make the trip easier for salmon. Newer and better screens are being installed at the dams. Water releases at the dams are being timed to provide faster flows down the river when the smolts are traveling through. Some of the smolts are even collected at Lower Granite Dam, placed in a barge full of water, and given a free ride down the river. They are released below Bonneville Dam.
Work is going on at other places, too. In small streams where salmon spawn and hatch, people are leaving trees and shrubs along the banks to keep the water cool and provide food for the insects that live in the stream. They are placing logs and boulders in the stream to create places for fish to hide and grow. They are protecting the stream water from pollution. All this work costs money, but it is needed to help salmon and other fish. Almost everybody helps pay for the work, through electricity rates and taxes. Many people even volunteer their own time and money to do these jobs.
After passing Bonneville Dam in late May, Tyee finds herself once again in a flowing river. She passes between the cities of Portland and Vancouver. Here, the water tastes different. In cities, rainwater hits rooftops, paved streets and parking lots. Instead of soaking into the ground, water quickly runs off these surfaces and into the nearest storm drain.
These drains lead directly into rivers and streams. Pollution is carried with the water. Such things as grit from rubber tires, detergent from washing cars, fertilizers from lawns and gardens, and even used anti-freeze and oil from cars is sometimes in the water. Tyee is glad to get past this part of her trip.
As Tyee travels past Portland and Vancouver, more smolts from other rivers and streams join her in the journey to the sea. The river is full of life.
What’s this!? Suddenly the current seems to be going the “wrong way.” Again, the water tastes different. Tyee finds herself in the Columbia River estuary. Here, twice each day, the incoming tide pushes seawater back up the river. The estuary is rich in new kinds of food: algae, crab larvae, shrimp and small fishes.
Tyee stays in the estuary for about two weeks. She still has to be careful. She is only about six inches long, and has to stay out of the way of larger fish. Pelicans and other fish-eating birds live in the estuary also. In the slack water of the estuary, Tyee joins other smolts near the surface of the water. Here, they jump out of the water as high as they can, but not to catch food. People don’t know why they do this. Perhaps it is to celebrate a lucky trip from their “home streams” to the sea. Tyee should celebrate. She is one of only 300 left of the 750 fry in her redd and the 5,000 eggs laid by her mother. Tyee the Lucky.
THE GREAT OCEAN
One night, after a warm, clear day in June, Tyee has an urge to begin the next stage of her life. She rides the night tide across the Columbia River bar and swims into the great Pacific Ocean. She will not see this place again for three years.
In the sea, there is new food to catch. At first, Tyee’s diet is mostly zooplankton – tiny animals in the ocean water. Later, she finds shrimp and other animals. Her body takes up the color of the shrimp, changing the color of her flesh from white to pink. Anchovies, herring and other fish are added to her diet.
Sea birds, tuna and larger salmon are everywhere, hungry to make a meal out of her. But she survives and grows. She heads northward, past the Strait of Juan de Fuca. She now weighs about a pound and a half.
Suddenly, she finds herself in a thick group of all sizes of fish. The group is being drawn together by a huge net. The bottom of a fishing boat can be seen above. Tyee slithers among the trapped fish in the net. She just manages to slide through one of the openings in the net. She has been saved only by her small size. A new predator – people – will be after her now. She has grown large enough to be valuable to both sport and commercial fishers.
For as long as there have been people and fish, humans have taken fish for their own use. The earliest people in the Pacific Northwest used salmon for food and many other things. To them, the salmon was a spirit, a link between the natural world and the world of people. They were in balance with the salmon.
Today, many more people live in the Pacific Northwest. There has been rapid growth, and with it, the need to catch more salmon. People got better and better at catching salmon. At the same time, people damaged the places where salmon lay their eggs and are reared. Dams greatly reduced the number of salmon traveling both up and down the river. Soon, the supply of salmon was not enough.
People argued about the causes of poor salmon runs. They blamed each other. Today, all the people who value salmon are beginning to see that they have to work together to save the salmon. This is why so much work is going on to help these fish.
Tyee is helped also by fishing regulations. These laws set limits on how many fish can be caught, when they can be caught, where and who can catch them. But Tyee doesn’t know about all this. She swims northward to the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
Tyee is now a clever hunter, eating whenever she can. She doubles her weight every three months in her first year in the ocean. By August of her second ocean year, she passes Sitka, Alaska, and weighs 12 pounds.
One of the great mysteries of the salmon is how these fish know where to go when they get to the ocean. Because they haven’t been in the ocean before, they couldn’t have “remembered” what their route should be. By tagging fish and tracking them in the ocean, scientists have learned that chinook salmon stay fairly close to shore. But very little is known about how they navigate. Tyee may use the angle of the sunlight in the water, water temperatures, the earth’s magnetic field, or ocean currents to find her way. Or it could be that the information needed is imprinted in her genes. She just knows without ever having to learn.
Coho, chum and sockeye salmon all have different ocean travel routes than chinook. Some stay inside the island groups off British Columbia in more protected waters. This is what Tyee does, swimming up to 15 miles each day. After two years in the Pacific – the third year of her life – she passes Anchorage, Alaska.
Tyee has become a large adult. She weighs 21 pounds, and is two-and-one-half feet long. She has a blue-green back and silvery-white belly. The two-tone coloring helps to keep her enemies from seeing her. Seen from above, she blends with dark ocean waters; from below, she blends with the lighter sky.
By now, she knows sea lions by sight and smell. She has been chased by them often, as well as killer whales. But she survives. Tyee the Lucky.
During July of her third year in the ocean, Tyee turns around and heads south. Her trip back down the coast is farther out to sea, about 200 miles. She is heading back to the Columbia River. As if she was hearing some natural music that only salmon can hear, Tyee knows where to go. She is swimming with the current now, and is able to cover about 30 miles each day.
Not all kinds of salmon stay in the ocean three years. Each one has its own time of return to fresh water. Sockeye and steelhead trout stay two or three years. Coho salmon stay for a shorter time. Chinook may stay in the ocean as many as five years before heading back upriver, but most stay two or three years.
Not all Chinook enter the rivers at the same time of year. There are spring, summer and fall Chinook. These runs of Chinook are named for the time they enter the river from sea.
Tyee is a spring Chinook. Just before Easter in her third year at sea, she returns to the Columbia River mouth and enters. Firm and plump, with pink meat, she is at the prime of her life. She weighs 28 pounds and is almost feet long. She is not the biggest fish there, but she is large. She carries scars from her adventures in the ocean. Behind the large fin on her back are tooth marks from a sea lion that just missed. A row of sea lice clings to her body, but she is strong and healthy.
As Tyee moves up into the estuary, she does not know that a short gillnet season just ended. Once again, she avoids danger from people’s nets. But she is not through with people just yet.
Sport anglers are fishing in a number of “hot spots” in the upper estuary. Tyee would be a prize catch.
Tyee snaps at an anchovy. The anchovy has two hooks in it. A line is attached. Her first reaction is to dive deep and to swim away from the pull of the line. This sets the hook even deeper in her jaw.
Her deep dive doesn’t seem to work. She rises to the surface, slashing and twisting. She jumps out of the water twice to rid herself of the hook. When she rests, she can feel herself getting pulled closer to the boat. She dives again, then rises, trying to get loose. The hook is working loose. If she has enough strength left, she may be able to keep the fight going.
After 20 minutes, Tyee is very tired. Perhaps her luck has run out. The boat is close now. She can see a large silver hoop with green nylon netting moving towards her. With one mighty leap and a twist of her body, Tyee rises out of the water. The hook tears loose. She lies on the surface for a moment, then rolls and swims down with what little strength she has left. She becomes “the big one that got away”. Tyee the Lucky.
THE RACE TO THE REDD
Tyee wastes no more time in the lower Columbia River. The rains have swelled the river, urging Tyee in a race upriver. Against the current, she has one purpose – to get back to her home stream and spawn. Eggs are growing inside of her.
She is no longer interested in food. Even though she might snap in anger at an angler’s bright lure, she is not hungry. She has stored up enough energy to make it all the way to Idaho. Now, it is time to use that energy.
In late April, she finds the entrance to the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam. She climbs the stairs of water. She passes an underwater window where a human counts her as chinook number 61,346. There will be more chinook behind her.
She passes into the reservoir. The slack water confuses her for a time, but she finds the ladder at The Dalles Dam. Along the way, there are more anglers and nets. She avoids both, but continues to use her energy reserves and gets thinner.
As she passes forks of rivers and streams, she uses her homing instincts to show her the way home. She says “no” to the Deschutes, the John Day and the Umatilla. But the Snake River “smells” right to her, and she leaves the Columbia. One hundred and fifty miles later, she comes once again to the Salmon River. She waits a few days for rain to make the river “right.” Inside her, eggs are ripening. Her stomach is empty from not eating for a month.
Tyee finds the Middle Fork of the Salmon and turns into it. A week later, she finds her creek without a name. After traveling about 900 miles downstream, 4,000 miles in the ocean, and another 900 miles to return here, she has returned home with a precious cargo.
A five-foot waterfall is all that stands in the way of reaching her goal. After all that’s happened, it seems impossible that Tyee could leap twice her length. But she does.
Four of her redd-mates have already arrived. She is the last. Only nine adults from the original 750 fry made it back to the Columbia River. Two of those ran into a gill net, and couldn’t back out. Another was caught by an angler’s hook. And another became confused by a dam and died of exhaustion trying to find a way through the concrete.
The five are not only the luckiest, they are also the fittest. They alone will pass on these traits to the next generation of Chinook.
THE FINAL ACT: SPAWNING
Males and females pair off to spawn. There are three males and two females, so there is much chasing and nipping as the males try to get a good position around the females. One of the chinook males is a jack. Jacks return to spawn earlier than other adults. He’s smaller than the other males, but he is able to spawn if the full-sized males don’t make it back to the spawning area.
The big males are dark and blotchy and have hooked snouts. They think the jack is nothing but a bother. When he drifts into the territories they have set up, they send him scampering upstream. After a while, he gets the idea that he is not wanted here.
Tyee ignores all this action. She has her own job. She builds a redd.
She chooses a spot where the gravel is fine and clean. With her tail, she begins sweeping gravel aside. She scoops out a kind of trough, in the shape of her body and twice as long. She tests it by settling into the trough. Then she moves upstream and swishes more gravel around the redd until it feels just right. The redd has a ridge on the downstream edge where she can rest.
Meanwhile, the two males begin a courtship “dance” around Tyee and the other female. They circle slowly. They come close and move away again. This goes on for hours around Tyee and her sister, resting in their redds.
Finally, a male swims beside Tyee and just upstream from her. His body presses hers against the ridge of the redd. Both seem to shudder. Tyee trembles. Pink eggs come out of her and drift into the redd. Almost immediately, a white cloud of sperm, or milt, comes out of the male and covers the eggs. This fertilizes the eggs, beginning the whole cycle again.
Tyee, with one last tired effort, rises from the redd. Just upstream, she swishes her tail. The action of her tail lifts small pieces of gravel from the bottom and into the redd. Fine gravel now covers and protects the eggs.
Leaves on the trees on the stream banks are yellow and brown. It has been five years since our story began. Tyee the Lucky has finally come home. In a few days, she dies. Her body decomposes, providing food for the smaller animals in the stream that she once fed on as a fry. With death comes life. The journey of Tyee the Lucky is complete.