Like clockwork, perhaps the most colorful display of fish in a natural setting in Utah is once again happening in mountain streams across the northern part of the state.
Late August, and well into September, is the time of year when kokanee salmon change color from a fairly nondescript silver-and-blue tone to a bright red hue and make their way from their regular homes in lakes and reservoirs upstream to their natural spawning grounds.
Kokanee is the name for landlocked Pacific Sockeye salmon, and just like their sea-run cousins, kokanee males in Utah develop the telltale hook-jaw appearance to go along with their bright coloring during the spawn. Once upstream, the males fertilize eggs that have already been deposited by females in gravelly spawning beds known as redds.
As with the great salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Alaska and other parts of the world that various species of salmon call home, the Utah run marks the end-of-life journey for the kokanee.
Kokanee are a favorite sport fish among Utah anglers for much of the year, but are off-limits to fishing around and during the spawning season.
In Cache County, the kokanee run is limited to the East Fork of the Little Bear River. The salmon spend most of their time in Porcupine Reservoir, but this time of year head upstream to the exact same locations where they were born to perpetuate the circle of life and death.
Other places in the state that have reliable kokanee runs are the streams that feed Causey Reservoir near Ogden, the Strawberry River and its tributaries near Heber City, a couple of spots in the Uinta Mountains, and streams that feed Fish Lake further to the south.
When they run, the kokanee are answering a primal call to keep their species going. Their innate sense of location takes them to the very same spots where their lives began.
Exhausted from the trip and the act of spawning, the fishes’ lives end right where they started, but their bodies continue to give life to the surrounding ecosystem. Much like they do for bears in Alaska, the dying salmon in Utah provide a valuable and easy source of fat and protein for birds of prey and other carnivorous animals that are starting preparations for the upcoming winter.
Nutrients from their decomposing bodies also help to enrich the stream environment itself.
Wildlife officials in Utah began stocking kokanee and several other salmon species in various waters in the state decades ago, but only the kokanee have endured.
Kokanee have been able to survive on their own since their introduction in Utah, but officials also raise them in hatcheries to help keep their numbers up and ensure a healthy population for anglers to take.
In conjunction with this human activity to help the kokanee, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, along with partner groups and agencies, puts on an annual Kokanee Salmon Viewing Day for the public.
This year, the event will be held Saturday at the U.S. Forest Service visitor center at Strawberry Reservoir near Heber City. The free event will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Attendees can see some salmon in the Strawberry River next to the visitor center. But those who walk to the fish trap and egg-taking facility behind the visitor center will see hundreds of the fish. DWR biologists will be available at the facility to show off the salmon and talk about their unique life.
The biologists will also talk about their efforts to maintain and supplement the natural kokanee populations. Scott Root, regional conservation outreach manager for the DWR, said biologists are hoping to collect more than 2 million kokanee eggs this year. The eggs will come from kokanee handled at the egg-taking facility at Strawberry, as well as from kokanee at Sheep Creek, a tributary to Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
After collecting the eggs, biologists will take them to DWR hatcheries. There, the eggs will be hatched, and the fry that hatch from the eggs will be raised.
“Survival success is much better in the hatcheries than it is in the wild,” Root said. “Next spring, the fish will be about three inches long. We’ll stock them into kokanee salmon waters across Utah.”
For those who can’t attend on Saturday, Root said salmon should be visible in the Strawberry River and its tributaries until early October.
And for Cache Valley residents who don’t want to drive that far, there’s still time to see the kokanee run upstream from Porcupine Reservoir in East Canyon — but you had better hurry.
The salmon are eager to finish their annual ritual so that another generation can repeat the migration next year.