Salmon set to spawn 'til they die

Julie Sullivan/Nevada appeal News Service Kokanee salmon are breeding this month at Taylor Creek.

Julie Sullivan/Nevada appeal News Service Kokanee salmon are breeding this month at Taylor Creek.

Between 40,000 and 60,000 kokanee salmon will make a mad dash up Taylor Creek this month to spawn, according to estimates by the U.S. Forest Service.

It's turning out to be one of the largest runs for the nonnative fish in recent years, drawing thousands of visitors to Lake Tahoe's south shore to watch a fascinating yet grisly scene.

After five or six years dodging sport fishermen in Lake Tahoe, the kokanee have less than a month to find a mate and have babies before death.

It's a rough life, but all salmon have the spawn-'til-you-die instinct, scaling waterfalls and braving predators to return to their breeding grounds.

As they return to the creek, their silver skin turns bright red, and the males grow a hooked jaw, thought to help them compete for females. Soon after they deposit their eggs or sperm, they will die.

Crawdads the size of lobsters crawl the creek, devouring an entire decomposing fish in less than an hour. Other scavengers include minnows, gulls, ducks, bald eagles and raccoons.

The spectacle is on display for all who visit the Forest Service's Taylor Creek Visitor Center, which has had more than 10,000 visitors each weekend this month and 2,000 to 3,000 people per day during the week.

"This is a good year. We've got a lot of spawning fish," said Jean Norman, lead interpretive ranger at the visitor center. In recent years, numbers have averaged a third as much, around 20,000 kokanee.

The kokanee are the landlocked version of sockeye salmon, which roam the ocean off the Lake Tahoe are now nonnative, Norman said.

Kokanee now provide good stock for Lake Tahoe's sport fishing industry and a unique educational opportunity, Norman said.

A stream-profile chamber allows visitors to watch the salmon in their natural environment.

The viewing room is below the ground, cut directly into the side of the stream.

As fish accumulate in the creek, the California Department of Fish and Game harvests eggs and sperm to take them to a hatchery, where they are used to restock Tahoe and other areas.

"We don't have enough territory for the fish to successfully reproduce," Norman said. "We are artificially keeping the population at optimal level, primarily because of sport fishing; (the kokanee are the) No. 2 catch in Lake Tahoe." The No. 1 catch is mackinaw.

The fish don't make good fishing or eating after they've transformed to spawn, as their flesh has already begun to die, turning to gray.

If you go

What: See the kokanee salmon


Stream-profile chamber: open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Visitor center: open 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. except on some weekdays from 10 a.m.-noon for environmental education classes


Taylor Creek Visitor Center

3 miles north of the "Y" on Highway 89 in South Lake Tahoe


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