Spawn today, gone tomorrow
A graphic example of Mother Nature’s magnificence, complexity and – some might say – cruelty is under way right now on South Shore.
In the 1 1/2-mile stream between Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe, thousands of red kokanee salmon now are fighting against the current, laying and fertilizing eggs and trying desperately to protect their redds – nests for fish.
Death for all of them is imminent.
And the event is one that any Tahoe resident and visitor can see for the next month at Taylor Creek.
“I always see on TV how they spawn and they die. Now I can see it in real life,” said Louie Fernandez, a visitor from Chino Hills, Calif. “I think it’s neat.”
Others visiting the creek earlier this week agreed.
“It’s just fascinating,” said Emmie White of Walnut Creek, Calif. “It’s the first time we’ve seen it, and we’re very excited about it. I think it’s something that should bring a lot of people here. It’s something a lot of people should see.
Taylor Creek is the ideal place for Tahoe’s kokanee to spawn. The U.S. Forest Service regulates the outflow from Fallen Leaf Lake, allowing a more steady current in Taylor Creek. While other streams may dry up or freeze over, Taylor Creek provides constant flowing water for the fish and more oxygen to the eggs.
Most of the fish spawning were likely born in Taylor Creek. Kokanee try to spawn in the same stream they were born into, even trying to return to within a couple yards of the location of their birth.
The kokanee salmon, which typically are 2 to 4 years old at the time of spawning, show up to Taylor Creek each year around the end of September. The stream can handle redds for about 22,000 kokanee.
This year, the number of kokanee spawning may be down from year’s past. However, Tahoe is lucky there are any at all. The famous Flood of 1997 washed almost all the kokanee eggs downstream. However, California Fish and Game and a group of volunteers planted thousands of kokanee fry into the stream after the flood. The ones spawning this year likely came from that batch.
“If we had not stepped in, I would say there would not be any fish this year – or very few,” said Frank SanMarco of the California Inland Fisheries Foundation, Inc., a 1,000-member, nonprofit group that helped with the fish planting.
Kokanee salmon are land-locked versions of ocean-going sockeye salmon. They are not native to Tahoe but were introduced in the late 1940s, originally intended to be food for larger native fish. At that time, kokanee were planted in 35 California lakes but have established self-perpetuating populations only in 10.
Normally, kokanee have dark blue backs, and their sides are silvery. As spawning season approaches, both sexes blush, or turn red. The jaw of the male develops a hook, and a hump forms in its back.
The kokanee lose their stomachs, and when they make it up into Taylor Creek, they have only to reproduce before they die.
Male and female kokanee pair up. The female releases her eggs; the male fertilizes them. Then they use the rest of their strength to protect the redds. Some are so exhausted from fighting the current and fighting each other for nesting areas that they die before spawning.
Taylor Creek will be full of dead salmon after the spawning season ends. The dead fish provide a winter food source for coyotes, gulls, raccoons, bald eagles and other animals.
Some eggs are washed downstream, some are eaten by predators and some hatch but are eaten by larger fish. While each female can lay more than a thousand eggs, only a fraction of those will result in adult kokanee that return to spawn.
A 10th annual Kokanee Salmon Festival is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, but the spawning can be seen by residents and visitors all month by going to the Forest Service Visitors Center on U.S. Highway 89 and walking the Rainbow Trail and visiting an underground stream-profile chamber.
“The whole month of October is typically a good time to come down and see them,” said Mike St. Michel, Visitors Center director for the Forest Service.
John Hardebeck of Fresno said he tries to visit each year to see the spawning.
“This is a phenomenon of nature that many people should see,” he said. “It’s an act of nature more people should be aware of.”