Only 1 percent of the millions of kokanee salmon eggs laid every fall at Taylor Creek produce fish that are born in the creek and swim off to live in Lake Tahoe.
Humans step in and make the venture more productive by harvesting 1.2 million eggs from kokanee in the creek. The eggs are bred in a hatchery and released to 26 lakes, including Lake Tahoe, throughout California.
"The mortality rate is pretty high," said Jeff Reiner, U.S. Forest Service restoration specialist. "They only have a limited amount of spawning habitat and the eggs get eaten by ducks."
With room in the creek for about 20,000 fish, many spawning areas are wrecked when 40,000 to 60,000 kokanee flood the shallow waters each fall.
Harvesting happens about four times. The last harvest of the season will take place Tuesday. Other than Taylor Creek, the only water in the state harvested for kokanee is the Little Truckee River near Stampede Reservoir, said Rod Browning, president of California Inland Fisheries Foundation.
Fisheries experts erect a metal fence across the creek, called a fish weir, that pools the kokanee. Employees of the California Department of Fish & Game and the California Inland Fisheries Foundation wade into creek, grab the fish and squeeze them dry of eggs and sperm. At the time of harvest, the fish have only days to live because they die after they spawn.
This year, as in many years past, visitors to the creek move or dislodge the weir to allow fish to swim farther up the creek toward Fallen Leaf Lake. Fish & Game said it considers the act to be vandalism.
"We're afraid there is a very small group of people who think we're harming the fish," said Patrick Foy, Fish & Game spokesman. "In fact, it's very much for the kokanee's benefit. If we didn't do this, there wouldn't be any kokanee in Lake Tahoe over time."
Harvesters transfer the fertilized eggs from large buckets into nylon sacks that are kept cold and transported to a hatchery at Rancho Cordova. By March or April, the fish will be about 2 inches long and ready for release.
"The lakes just can't produce kokanee without artificial planting," Browning said. "They've got water-level changes, there are only certain areas to spawn, water flow slows down and they die. Only a certain amount make it."