The sockeye salmon trapping season in central Idaho's Sawtooth Valley has gotten off to a strong start with Thursday's haul of 62 fish – which is larger than any daily capture during 2009's record return.
So far this summer 255 Snake River sockeye salmon have been trapped either at Lower Granite Dam (19 fish) on the lower Snake River, at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Sawtooth Hatchery's on the Salmon River in Idaho's high country or at nearby Redfish Lake Creek.
The spawning sockeye swim 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to the 6,500-foot elevation valley, where they historically reproduced in Alturas, Pettit, Redfish, Stanley and Yellowbelly lakes. The primary destination now is Redfish Lake.
Most of this year's adult returns are 4-year-olds resulting from smolts that migrated to the ocean in 2008. Those smolts were produced by Redfish Lake Sockeye Captive Broodstock Program, and by spawners with a history in the program that returned from the ocean.
The Snake River stock was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 after dwindling almost to extinction. The broodstock program, a multi-agency and tribal effort started in May 1991, was initiated to protect population genetic structure and to prevent the further decline of Idaho sockeye salmon. The program also produces eggs and fish to reintroduce to the habitat to increase population numbers.
Nowadays all returning spawners are captured and held at Eagle Hatchery near Boise until after Labor Day. Then some are released into Redfish Lake to spawn on their own, and others are spawned at the hatchery to produce a next generation of eggs, fry, smolts and adult broodstock.
"We had a big day yesterday," Travis Brown, Eagle Hatchery assistant manager, said this morning (Friday). "And they're all in really good shape so we're excited about that." The truck used to haul the fish has a capacity of 40 so biologists had to make a second trip from the traps down to Boise, more than 130 miles one way.
This year the first sockeye arrived at Sawtooth Hachery on July 24 and the first three were trapped at Redfish Lake Creek on July 26. Since then the daily totals have slowly climbed and were 35, 41, 41 and 62 this Monday through Thursday.
Last year's total of 833 sockeye salmon was a record over the course of the program and next best of 2008's total of 650. The first returns from the program (seven fish) were in 1999. The only other annual return higher than 27 since then was a total of 257 in 2000.
The high daily trapping total in 2009 was 46 on Aug. 8.
This season's total could be a record breaker. A total of 2,075 sockeye had been counted through Thursday at Lower Granite, some 400 miles downstream of Sawtooth Hatchery. That's the most dating back to at least 1975. The peak daily count there was 162 on July 6. Last year the season's total at Lower Granite was 1,219.
"I don't think we've hit our peak yet," Brown said of the trapping effort. Last year the first fish was captured July 23 and the last on Oct. 9.
All trapped fish are healthy and well at Eagle, according to Brown. There is at least one difference between the fish trapped at Lower Granite as part of a transportation feasibility study and the fish that swam that 400-mile homestretch above the dam.
The Lower Granite fish "are just now starting to turn a little bit pink," Brown said. The fish trapped in the Sawtooth Valley are already the radiant red that sockeye are famous for. The fast color change is prompted by the expenditure of fat-energy during that final spawning leg, he said.