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Record Returns Gives Rare Glimpse
Into Fish's Idaho Return

by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman
The Seattle Times, August 6, 2008

(Mark Harrison/Seattle Times) Sockeye salmon pass through the Ballard Locks. Sockeye runs have hit historic post-dam-construction highs this summer in the Columbia and Snake rivers STANLEY, Idaho - For the first time in years, Idahoans have a good opportunity to see the state's most endangered fish alive.

So far, 63 sockeye salmon have made the nearly 900-mile trip from the Pacific Ocean, through eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and finally to the Sawtooth Valley.

Every morning at 9 a.m., the Idaho Department of Fish and Game empties its trap at the Sawtooth Hatchery, less than 6 miles south of Stanley, giving the public a chance to see the salmon returning in numbers not seen for decades.

The fish swim into traps set on Redfish Lake Creek and at the Sawtooth Hatchery. Only the hatchery trap on Idaho 75 between Stanley and Ketchum is open to the public.

Fish and Game officials are hoping that up to half of the sockeye counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River will make the 462-mile trip from the dam to the Idaho lakes. They expect the number of returning sockeye to peak later this week through early next week.

"We'll get 40 fish a day at the peak," said Mike Peterson, a Fish and Game sockeye biologist.

More than 850 salmon have passed Lower Granite, the last dam that returning fish have to contend with on their way to Redfish, Petit and Alturas lakes in the Sawtooth Valley, where many of these salmon were hatched in 2006.

Larry Adkinson of Boise drove over with his two grandchildren to watch biologists measure the red spawners, along with larger chinook salmon still running up the Salmon River.

"This is an incredible sight," Adkinson said. "I remember the years when the counter said zero."

Historically, 75 percent of the sockeye counted at Lower Granite have not survived the last leg of their journey. But Dan Baker, manager of the Eagle Hatchery, said the heavy snowpack this year makes him optimistic.

"This is the coolest the water has been in 10 years," Baker said.

Maureen and Wayne McAdam of Duarte, Calif., watched as five sockeye were collected at the hatchery Monday. Another 11 were caught at Redfish Lake Creek.

"Even without this I could stand here all day and watch the fish come over the ladder," Wayne McAdam said. "You have to go to Alaska to see something like this."

The sockeye are loaded into a water tank on a truck and carried to the Eagle Hatchery daily. There, biologists will test them and decide whether they will be returned to spawn naturally in Redfish Lake in September or be spawned artificially in the hatchery.

Some eggs are sent to a federal hatchery in Washington, and some are placed in protected egg boxes in Petit and Alturas lakes south of Redfish.

Tens of thousands of spawning fish once gave Redfish Lake its name, until miners blocked off their migration route in 1910 with Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River east of Stanley. Sportsmen blew up the dam in 1931, and the sockeye miraculously returned once again, with numbers peaking at 4,360 in 1955.

Fish and Game did not regularly count how many sockeye came back to Redfish Lake, but the best run before this year was 531 sockeye counted at Lower Granite Dam in 1975, the first year the dam was in place. Since then, numbers have dwindled, and in 1991 the fish was listed as endangered by the federal government.

Every year since, every sockeye salmon that has arrived in the Sawtooth Valley has been placed in a captive breeding program designed to preserve the fish's precious genetic characteristics.

Sockeye caught the state's imagination in 1992 when "Lonesome Larry" was the only sockeye to return to Redfish Lake. You can see him, preserved forever, at the MK Nature Center in Boise.

In 1995, though, not a single sockeye returned.

The captive breeding program has slowly grown, placing more and more smolts in the river. In 2000, 257 sockeye returned to Stanley.

But progress has been spotty. Last year, four sockeye returned.

Related Pages:
F&G Management Plans Helping in the Sockeye Recovery by Cal Groen, Idaho Statesman, 8/12/8
Don't Equate Strong Sockeye Return with Recovery by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 8/10/8

Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman
Record Returns Gives Rare Glimpse Into Fish's Idaho Return
The Seattle Times, August 6, 2008

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