It’s a time for celebration of a sort when the first Snake River sockeye salmon each year reaches its home in the central Idaho high country… and that time has arrived.
The first of what is expected to be 1,000 or more spawners completed its 900-mile trip from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers Monday.
The fish, a Sawtooth Hatchery product released as a smolt, was trapped by Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists and transported to Eagle Hatchery near Boise, where it will be held until spawning time this fall.
Then it will either be released into Redfish Lake near Stanley, Idaho, to spawn or incorporated into the Snake River Sockeye Salmon Broodstock Program.
The program since it began in 1991 has literally kept the Snake River sockeye run alive. In 1992, a single male sockeye salmon dubbed “Lonesome Larry” was the lone wild sockeye to make it back to Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains country.
Redfish Lake sockeye salmon were listed as endangered in November 1991 -- the first Idaho salmon species to be listed. They are unique among sockeye. They climb more than 6,500 feet in elevation to reach their spawning destination, and they are the southern most-North American sockeye population.
Between 1991 and 2008, 1,005 wild sockeye returned to Idaho. Between 1999 and 2007, 355 hatchery produced adult sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley.
The product of the broodstock program began showing themselves in 2008. A total of 650 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley – 432 at Redfish Lake and 218 at Sawtooth Hatchery. In 2009 the total grew 833.
Last year was the best year ever since the program began. A total of 652 adult sockeye were trapped at the Redfish Lake trap and another 648 were trapped at Sawtooth Hatchery. Those counts include fish of both hatchery and natural origin.
Last year a total of 2,201 sockeye were counted climbing up and over Lower Granite Dam, which was the most by far on a record dating back to 1975. Second best was 1,210 in 2009 and third best was 919 in 2008. Southeast Washington’s Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is the eighth hydro project the fish must pass on their way upriver.
The forecast this year is for a return 2,100 Snake River sockeye to the mouth of the Columbia. Through Thursday a total of 1,008 sockeye had reached Lower Granite, which leaves them about 400 river miles to swim to get to the Stanley basin. Eagle Hatchery manager Dan Baker said that on average it takes about four weeks for the sockeye to make that last leg of their journey.