Those Bright Red Fish


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Salmon have been a part of our history here in the Sawtooth Valley for many, many years. The story of the salmon reaches to far off places that we may never see ourselves, places we may only be able to dream about. For many people in this area, salmon are a lifeline. They provide food, health, and money for countless people.

There are many people that come here from all over the world for our world class king salmon fishing. They travel for hours, sometimes even days, to spend some time out in the river. Natives travel to our lakes to fish for the infamous sockeye that travel hundreds of miles to get here. As the sockeye travel into the lakes, the kokanee travel into the streams, and a cycle is born. The sockeye salmon is an incredibly important part of our ecosystem throughout the Sawtooth mountain range. Their bright red mating colors have attracted people to them for many years. In fact, stories say that Redfish Lake got its name from these fish. They say that the lake used to shimmer red and be ever so radiant. That you used to be able to walk across the backs of the red fish in the creeks and streams. Let’s start at the beginning of the salmon story, the very beginning of their individual lives. Sockeye salmon start as small little eggs in the gravel of the lake. These eggs will lie in wait in the gravel over the winter, and slowly develop and eventually hatch. Typically, they are called sac fry, which are small fish that are carrying around an egg yolk. This yolk is their immediate food source, so it’s kind of like carrying around a small refrigerator at all times! It’s always snack time!

A photograph of hatched salmon fry | Stanley Chamber

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Once the yolk is gone, they are then considered to be fry, or smolts. Some species of fish will stay in the fresh water for a short time, while others, like the sockeye, can stay in the lake for a couple of years, feeding and growing just a little more. One year they decide it’s time to head out. Watch out! The spring melt is going to carry you away down through the outlet, and flush you right into the Salmon River. These fish will follow the rivers down to the ocean, but they do it in a weird way. They go down backwards! They go tail first through the 900+ mile journey to the ocean. Once these smolts hit the estuary, the area where salt and fresh water mix, the fish get their first taste of the ocean. They spend some time here in order to feed heavily and allow their bodies to get used to the strange new waters. Once they are ready for the harsh ocean waters, they head out the mouth of the river and start exploring the great blue ocean.

A picture of two sockye in a river | Stanley Commerce

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These sockeye can spend many years out there. They have been tracked all the way out on the coast of Japan and then back to our waters. The salmon get large and powerful as they learn how to survive out there, but eventually, just like we all do, they decide it’s time to go home. So they start their long journey back to our water ways here in Stanley. The sockeye stop eating, and start transforming. They allow their bodies time in the estuaries to get used to fresh water again, and then they start their journey back. Soon the rivers have these bright red fish with vibrant green heads swimming up river again. They jump through the fish ladders of the dams, and slowly make their way back to Redfish Lake. The males develop a large hooked mouth and sharp teeth in order to fight for dominance, and the females are slender and ready to make their redds. These fish spawn, lay their eggs, and eventually die, leaving minerals and food for their offspring the following spring.

A diagram of the life sycle of sockye | Stanley Chamber

Every year we celebrate the return of these wonderful fish. Idaho Rivers United and the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association put together the Sawtooth Salmon Festival. There is music, food, and fun here, all in order to properly welcome these fish back into our waters. This year the festival is August 26 and 27, 2016. There will even be a Salmon dinner catered by The Redd Restaurant here in town! Be sure to purchase your dinner tickets here by August 17 in order to reserve your dinner plate for this amazing time.

A poster for the Sawtooth Salmon Festival | Stanley Chamber

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