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PO Box 207
1241 Illinois River Rd
Selma, OR 97538
Phone: (541) 597-8530
Fax: (541) 597-8533
Contact: Siskiyou Field Institute

Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Monday-Friday
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Swimming With Springers

by Sue Maurer

I’m all eyes, as the swift current moves my body head-first downstream. I see an underwater window between the boulders, which I quickly pass through, my feet together, whipping around behind me like a tail. Glancing from side to side, I look underneath the bubble curtains and in the quiet eddies behind the boulders. I’ve been in the river all morning and my human body has given over its terrestrial form to the aquatic environment. I am beginning to feel more like the fish we are here to observe

I lift my head out of the water and look across to my snorkeling partner who signals he has spotted something. Drifting sideways, I peek into the pocket of water where he’s pointing. There, swaying gently in the current not five feet away, is a female spring chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). I recognize her immediately by the olive-colored back with small square spots connected at the corners and silvery-gray underbody. She’s wary, but doesn’t bolt. I float motionless along side of her, trying to act like a piece of debris. I marvel at her beauty and my mind drifts with questions about her life. Where has she been? What has she encountered? What is it like living in this watery world?

This is the sixth “springer” we’ve seen this morning in the upper reaches of the South Fork of the Salmon River in northwest California. It’s the last weekend in July and my brother Jeff and I are participating in the annual Salmon River Spring Chinook/Summer Steelhead Adult Census. Working together with agency fisheries biologists, technicians and community and tribal members, we’ll snorkel survey the entire length of the Salmon River that may be occupied by anadromous fish (those that return from the ocean to spawn). Each team of 2-4 people in full wetsuits will survey approximately four miles of the river each day over the two-day event.  

Like other species of Pacific salmon, spring chinook spend most of their lives in the big feed lot of the sea. Varying ocean conditions, often tied to climatic events like El Nino, affect their survival from year to year. Most fish mature in the ocean as three to four-year olds, before heading for the rivers of their birth to spawn and then die. The salmon’s ability to find their natal streams was a mystery for many years. Although their ability to navigate to the mouths of rivers is still poorly understood, we know that their sense of smell guides them once they enter fresh water.

The spring run constitutes a distinct race of chinook salmon (also called king salmon or Tyee – the Chinook word for “large”), with a unique life history. Adult fish move into the Klamath River during high spring flows (hence their name) and begin to make their way upstream. By early summer, they have entered the Salmon River (~ 50 miles upstream from the Pacific) and by late summer have ascended into the middle reaches of the watershed. Then they stop, and search for a deep hole or a spring-fed pool in the river where cool water remains throughout the heat of summer and with some cover where they can hide from predators.

Against the slight current in these holes, the fish swim slowly in place, rarely moving more than a few feet from their chosen place, conserving energy. One can sometimes see them crowded together, their dark olive-gray backs parallel to the current, like a flight of zeppelins, until a disturbance, a shadow, spooks them into dispersal, only to return within minutes one-by-one to their vigil. During this time their bodies are changing, from trophy athletes to reproductive engines. They shun even the slim sustenance these small rivers afford fish this large. While their flesh decays, their energy slowly being consumed to produce eggs in females and fighting equipment for the mating competition in males. An adult female may have over 20% of her body mass taken up by eggs by the time she spawns.

Finally, after the river of their namesake swells with the first fall rains in October, the patient chinook snap out of their summer lethargy and spawn in the upper reaches and tributaries of the watershed. Incubation of their eggs takes place over the winter months and most fry emerge from the gravels in late winter and spring. The length of time that the juveniles spend in freshwater is somewhat unknown, but local studies have detected young fish leaving the South Fork Salmon in pulses, extending all the way through mid-October. This extended rearing pattern in freshwater is what fisheries biologist call a stream-type life history pattern, and is one of the factors that makes survival of this race of chinook so challenging.

What was once the primary run of chinook salmon in the Klamath River system, the spring run has declined by roughly 95 % from historic levels. Prior to 1900, the spring run was distributed throughout the upper Klamath Basin and the Shasta and Scott Rivers (see accompanying map of their historic range). However, today the only significant existing wild run upstream of the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers is in the Salmon River sub-basin. But even here, the fish are in real trouble. The run declined to fewer than 200 spawners each year between 1989 to 1992. While numbers have increased some, many fisheries scientists still consider them to be at high risk of extinction.

Cooperation is the key to learning and sharing what we know about these unique fish, according to Petey Brucker, Executive Director of the Salmon River Restoration Council, a local non-profit watershed group. Petey, like many other local residents, has participated in the annual summer snorkel surveys since they began in 1990. “What I do know, is that we don’t know enough; we need to learn a lot more about what these fish are doing”, says Petey.  “We need to learn to work together as partners in order for recovery and we need to develop a cooperative strategy.”
 
Keeping an open mind and searching for solutions keeps Petey going. Understanding the habitat needs at all the stages of the spring chinook’s life cycle may help us identify what the biggest problems are for them. And by returning to the traditional ways of honoring the first salmon runs of the season by letting the spawners come all the way upriver before any are harvested down lower, may guarantee that this wild run of springers survive into the future.

Finally I bring myself back from my mental wanderings, and Jeff and I climb up out of the river on a large boulder. I take out the map and note the location of this female. We are barely half way through the reach, with much more yet to see. In addition to the adult spring chinook, there are schools of rainbow trout, young-of-the-year coho, giant salamanders, river otters, aquatic garter snakes, yellow-legged frogs, and a host of other creatures that we’re likely to encounter along the way. Snorkeling the Salmon is a rich wilderness experience, and a wonderful way to spend a few hot summer days.

We don masks and snorkels and slide back into the current. As we near the next large pool, I motion to Jeff that I am going around to peak into it from the side, below the bubble curtain. Jeff holds back, waiting for me to get into position. I motion “thumbs up” – a fish is here. This time it is a sleek, bright silver body, curled against the bedrock ledge near the bottom of the pool. Not a salmon this time, but a summer steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss).  This female is very wary and in a silvery flash she disappears into a maze of boulders just downstream.

Like the spring chinook, this summer steelhead spent most of its adult life in the ocean and has returned to freshwater to spawn. They also require similar adult holding habitat (deep, coldwater pools with cover) for waiting out the summer, and spawn after the rivers rise in fall and winter. But unlike all other West Coast salmonids, “steelies” are capable of returning to spawn several times. Although survival percentage is low, a steelhead can make it back to the sea, restore its health and make the return trip in following years to lay and fertilize another redd (a nest of salmonid eggs, deposited in the gravel).

In a curious turn on anadromy, some first-year steelhead only make it as far as the estuary of their home river before turning around and heading back upstream. These fish are fondly referred to as “half-pounders” by sport anglers, and the Klamath River system is famous for its half-pounder run. It is not known why the Klamath steelies, alone of all salmonids, do this, perhaps to avoid predators. Much remains to be learned about the relationship between the resident rainbow trout and their ocean-going kin, which are identical genetically, but have very different life histories.

After floating motionlessly on the river’s surface for several minutes, looking for any other fish, I wave Jeff on through. As he plunges through the riffles at the entrance of the pool, the female steelhead I had just seen bolts from her cave-like hiding place, along with another one. Together they circle back upstream, and both Jeff and I get a good look at these beautiful silver-sided fish through the wavering green curtains of afternoon sunlight.
Apologizing for our intrusion into their habitat, I think to myself how incredibly fortunate I am to be a part of this aquatic world for a day, to see these creatures that have been around for thousands of years and to share all of this with my brother. Life may be good for us, but I know that it’s an epic struggle for the handful of spring chinook and summer steelhead we’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this day. Hopefully, by learning more about the complexities of their particular lives and the human-related challenges they face, we’ll be able to ensure that these spectacular wild creatures will always return to the river that bears their name.


Sue Maurer works with the watershed education program of the Salmon River Restoration Council, and lives a stone’s throw away from a “springer” stream in northwest California’s Scott Valley. If you’d like to find out more about and perhaps volunteer to help with the annual Spring Chinook/Summer Steelhead Census on the Salmon River, contact Brenda Olson, Fisheries Biologist with the Klamath National Forest, at (503) 468-1287.



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