The Big Fish of Bear Valley

Story and Photos by Evin Oneale
Fish and Game Regional Conservation Educator

The big fish are back in Bear Valley and they have to be tired. Swimming virtually non-stop for one to three years in the Pacific Ocean, Idaho's chinook salmon were suddenly and mysteriously overcome with a desire to return home. So on they came, swimming across the Pacific, to the mouth of the Columbia River. Guided by their sense of smell, they moved upstream to the Snake River, then up the Snake to Idaho's Salmon River. Still following their noses, they pressed on, swimming up the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Passing dozens of small feeder streams, they arrived at Bear Valley Creek. It has been months since they started the journey and they have lost a third their body weight, but they are finally home.

Fish and Game Fisheries Manager Dale Allen and his crew of fish biologists are here too, walking the banks of Bear Valley, Elk and Sulphur Creeks, counting the salmon egg nests or "redds" constructed by the adult salmon. Each redd is relatively easy to locate. Gravel, disturbed by the adult fish, glistens brightly in the morning sunlight, contrasted by darker, undisturbed gravel surrounding the redd. "We've been surveying these same sections of stream and conducting redd counts for more than 30 years," Allen explained. "That accumulated data shows us how well our chinook salmon are returning over time."

Home, Sweet, Home . . . For eons, chinook salmon have returned to Bear Valley Creek in central Idaho to spawn and complete their lifecycle.
Bear Valley Creek

The Bear Valley area has a key role to play in the recovery of Idaho's chinook salmon. "Bear Valley is one of our wild production areas for spring and summer chinook," Allen noted. "Fish have never been removed for rearing in hatcheries, and no hatchery fish have ever been introduced to this area. These wild salmon genetics are critically important for recovery of these summer chinook to Idaho.

While his mate constructs a redd just upriver, a big male chinook salmon keeps another, smaller male at bay. Male chinook will aggressively protect their chosen mates from rogue males.
A big female chinook has chosen a site to lay her eggs in Bear Valley Creek. Perhaps she is content simply to be laying those eggs somewhere in her natal stream. Or perhaps, she has searched carefully and located the exact spot where, four or five years earlier, she began life as a tiny egg in this high basin stream. Regardless, the redd-building procedure is a sight to behold. The big fish rolls on her side, thrashing her tail vigorously to disturb the streambed gravels, forming a shallow depression. This process may continue for hours until the redd is fashioned to the female's liking.

As redd construction continues, and with her mate standing by, the female settles into the redd, laying a series of eggs that filter into the gravel bottom. The male chinook moves just upstream, releasing a cloud of sperm that drifts down onto the eggs. The female then uses her tail to enlarge the redd upstream from the now fertilized eggs, burying this next generation of salmon in the process. The entire performance is repeated until the female has expelled all 4,500 to 5,000 eggs. Exhausted from the effort, both adults rest. The female may remain an attentive guardians at the nest for as long as her energy lasts. The male may seek out other mates. Producing the next generation of salmon will be their last act.

Like all members of the salmon family (except steelhead), chinook adults die following spawning. It's a marvelously simple and wonderful system that our techno-crazed society cannot duplicate. After one to three years of non-stop feeding in the ocean, storing nutrients found no where else on earth, Idaho's chinook salmon return home. After death, their bodies break down, releasing those unique nutrients into high elevation Idaho streams, most of which are otherwise nearly hospital-sterile. The nutrients revitalize the stream system, and are the building blocks for the food chain that will ultimately sustain the chinook's offspring during their first year of life. So, even in death, adult chinook provide for their progeny. Up to 137 diff species have been known to use salmon carcasses and they also contribute nutrients to the ecosystem as they decay.

In a three-day period, Allen and his crew survey 50 miles of stream, counting 177 salmon redds, 103 of those in Elk Creek alone. That's up considerably from the years from which these salmon were spawned. In 1995, a total of ten redds were counted and in 1996, 45 redds were counted. All the fish returning this year are progeny from that collection of 55 redds.

This year's run has more than replaced itself, but the numbers in no way represent recovery. Rather, they are a shot in the arm for a species struggling at the brink of extinction. "The number of adult salmon returning to the Bear Valley area is about one fourth the number we documented returning here during the 1950s and 1960s," Allen noted.

In the 1960s (the "good old days" in the memory of Idaho salmon anglers), thousands of big chinook salmon returned to the Bear Valley region of Idaho. And the anglers followed. "In the 1960s we had salmon fishing seasons up here in Bear Valley and Elk Creeks that were wildly popular," Allen said. What a difference a few years make. Idaho's last wild salmon season was held in 1978. In the Bear Valley area, fishing ended many years earlier. "Now, instead of salmon fishing here in Bear Valley, we're dealing with an endangered species," Allen said grimly.

Allen is grateful for this year's boost in salmon numbers, however slight. "Numbers are better this year than we had predicted," Allen said. "These fish went out to the ocean in 1997 or 1998 and have returned in numbers that are higher than the number of redds we counted when these fish were just salmon eggs, that is, 1995 or 1996." Good outgoing flows when smolts are migrating to the ocean improve the chances of getting a good upstream migration when those fish mature.

As fall gives way to winter, the tiny salmon eggs, so carefully deposited by adult salmon now long gone, will slowly develop, safe and protected in the stream bottom. Emerging from the gravel next spring, the tiny salmon fry will start the salmon life cycle anew, doing their part to stave off extinction and perhaps, serve as the backbone for salmon recovery and a return to the "good old days."







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