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Fish in Fall Colors

September 30, 2010

It was a lovely afternoon to drive through the hills, dressed in their finest autumnal colors, beneath the brilliant sun and indigo skies of Indian summer. The road I had chosen paralleled a small stream, bounded on either side by browning grass and golden willows so lush one often could not see the water. Near its end, as it slowly and sinuously poured itself into a reservoir, I noticed people wandering its banks, occasionally pointing excitedly down at the stream and calling to each other. I ignored them. My eyes were only for the large flocks of birds feeding in the bay created by the stream’s inlet. But as I wandered its banks toward the lake, binoculars around my neck, spotting scope over my shoulder, eyes on the birds, I could not help but notice an occasional flash of scarlet out of the corner of my eye. Finally yielding, I looked. Kokanee salmon were racing up and down the stream at my side, as brilliantly red as the oak in the surrounding, sheltering hills.

The kokanee are land-locked Sockeye salmon. In most cases they are an introduced (nonnative) specie, living in the cold water of a few deep lakes scattered across the western states. Like their oceanic kin most reach maturity in three or four years. They undergo a color change, from silver fish to creatures with scarlet bodies and green heads. Males also develop humped backs and fearsome dagger-like teeth.

As adults they spawn. Some kokanee will breed in the shallows along the lake shores but many return to the rivers and streams of their parents, their flowing hydrological heritage. A female prepares a bed in the stream bottom by scouring it with her tail as a male actively and aggressively patrols the area, protecting it simultaneously from intruders and other potential suitors.

And then they die. Here and there on the stream bottom I saw the casualties of this final creative act, like fallen leaves. The young will hatch in a month or so, assuming the shallow water does not first freeze. While their parents will not be present to protect or nurture them, they will give their young a final gift. As the newly hatched fry make their way to the lake their first meals will be of zooplankton, many of which will have fed on the remains of the recently deceased. Even in death, the kokanee provide life for their children.

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