Tahoe's Drama of the Kokanee

By Williamson, Marcia | Sunset, October 1992 | Go to article overview

Tahoe's Drama of the Kokanee


Williamson, Marcia, Sunset


Each autumn, from late September through mid-October, one of biology's clocks sounds an irresistible alarm. Mature kokanee salmon, transformed from a silver-blue color to a fiery vermilion, twist their narrowing way upstream from Lake Tahoe to spawn in the gravels of Taylor Creek, near South Lake Tahoe. The sight of the blazing salmon draws many spectators, who can observe the fish at close range in several places. The kokanee's commitment to its nature is compelling. People tend to stop for a brief look, then become transfixed.

Introduced to the lake in 1944. this fish is a landlocked version of the oceangoing sockeye. Lake anglers call it silversides, for its fight as well as its flash. But as these salmon reach about 3 years of age, they are overcome by a call set deep in their genes, and begin to move toward the stream where they hatched.

As they go, their bodies turn from willow leaf-shaped to humpbacked. Hormone changes inflame their skin. Their flesh goes mushy and their stomachs resorb. The males develop strange new teeth along suddenly protuberant lower jaws; some even grow teeth on their tongues. Finally, after days of struggle, little more than moving carcasses, they spawn. Then they die, a feast for gatherings of mink, bears, and plunging bald eagles.

To view this drama, stop by the U.S. Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Visitors Center during the annual Kokanee Salmon Festival, October 3 and 4, for short naturalist-guided walks, or go on your own anytime through the third week in October. …

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