Colors of fall: Salmon run in Tahoe area
by Matt Farley
Thousands of bright red kokanee salmon are flooding up Taylor Creek this month as part of their annual spawning rite.
Up to 60,000 of the fish, landlocked relatives of the marine sockeye salmon, could pass through the creek this fall on their way from Lake Tahoe back to the streams where they were hatched, said Jean Norman, assistant director of the Taylor Creek Visitor Center.
"Around late September, they start smelling home," she said, describing how biologists believe kokanee navigate the chilly mountain waters. "The males come first and stake out a safe area, and then the females come later."
Each autumn, the kokanee return to their native areas to select a mate, spawn and die, Norman said. The migration generally reaches its peak in mid-October and can last until late November. As they travel, the salmon gradually change from silvery green and blue to a brilliant red as part of a mating display. Males also develop humped backs and heavy hooked jaws.
The fish migrate en masse to their mating grounds, fighting their way up the shallow stream, displaying their colors to attract a mate and struggling to protect small patches of gravel streambed where they make their redds, or nests.
During the height of the season, Taylor Creek is alive with threshing red fish, egg-eating birds such as mallards and, occasionally, bears and other omnivorous mammals. The wooded area was also filled with dozens of hikers and photographers on Thursday, many seemingly as interested in the spectacular autumn landscapes as the salmon migration.
A large group of third-graders from Carson City's Bordewich Bray Elementary School toured the creek with rangers, watching the fish, inspecting the surrounding area for signs of predators and learning about the local food chain.
"My favorite part was seeing the ranger pick up the fish and squeeze the eggs out of 'em," student Alex Marschner said. "He showed us bear poo, too."
Another student, Alexa Conrad, gave an exhaustive recounting of the class' trip, including their time in the Stream Profile Chamber, which looks in on the fish from below the waterline.
"We talked about how they change from silver and blue to red and green," she said. "But it was really cool to look and see it."
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