My long love affair with coho salmon started when I was about 12, living in a small town in the northwest part of Washington state.
A friend and I were trying out a “hotrod” we’d made with wooden apple boxes and baby-buggy wheels. After a down-hill run that painfully ended in a thicket of blackberry vines, we were carrying the remains back to his house when I saw a fish in a ditch beside the road. As boys will, we tried to catch it, but it escaped into a culvert. My buddy knew where there were more. He led me up that trickle of a creek into a stand of tall alders, where we found other fish. They were either dead or dying, not as exciting as the first one we’d seen, but fascinating, nonetheless.
I didn’t know it at the time, but those fish were coho salmon — the fish we Alaskans usually call “silvers.” As size goes, they were small. I suppose larger fish were unable to navigate up that shallow, jump-able creek. They likely had been born in that creek. After living either there or in some nearby pond or stream for a year or two, they had migrated to sea. Somehow, they had wormed their way through road culverts and algae- and weed-choked ditches, contending with all manner of birds and beasts that like to eat salmon, into a tributary of the Samish River, and from there into Puget Sound. After spending about 18 months in saltwater, they had retraced their hazard-ridden route and returned to their “home” stream. The vast majority had died while trying. The hardy few that made it home carried the responsibility of breeding and assuring the survival of their kind.
Like other surprising things seen for the first time, the memory of those fish has remained strong all of my life.
The next time I saw cohos, I was 30, living in Juneau. On a fall day, I was walking on the Mendenhall Flats near the airport, when I came across a pair of spawning cohos in a small creek. Never having seen salmon spawn, I crouched in the tall grass to watch.
The fish were easy to see in that clear, shallow creek. They were good-sized silvers, 8 or 9 pounders, with the male slightly larger. Their flanks had turned from silver to bright red, darkening to maroon-red on their upper backs. Every few minutes, the female would turn on her side and powerfully thrust her tail, digging a nest in the gravel. She repeated this a few times, until the depression was 9 or 10 inches deep. Both fish then positioned themselves side by side in the nest and quivered, expelling eggs and sperm. The female then positioned herself at the top of the nest and began digging another one. As she did, the gravel and sand from that nest covered the eggs in the previous one.
Thinking about it later, I realized that it was a wonder that those salmon lived long enough to spawn in that shallow creek, so easily seen and exposed to eagles, loose dogs and loose boys. That they did was nothing short of a miracle.
The next time I saw a coho was