Annual run of kokanee is just a trickle so far

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

STRAWBERRY RESERVOIR, Utah (AP) -- The kokanee are late. Or they're not coming at all. At this point no one is sure what to expect.

The annual spawning run of red-bodied salmon that is supposed to be a stampede up the Strawberry River is little more than a casual stroll at this point.

Despite the tardiness, the festival will go on. The Friends of Strawberry Valley will hold its first Wildlife Festival this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The opportunity to watch and learn about the salmon run will be one of the activities -- no matter the numbers.

''Last year at this time we had about 5,000 kokanee visit our traps,'' reported Roger Wilson, project leader for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. ''This year we've got about 200 fish.

''But it's really not so surprising. There are strong runs and weak runs. At this point we're not sure which one this will be, but it's looking like it will be more on the weak side.''

The past two years, the annual salmon run has been very strong.

''If, in fact, this does turn out to be a weak run, we'll go back and review what we did and see if it could have had something to do with the way we stocked three years ago. It could also have something to do with the drought,'' added Wilson.

Each year, in mid-September, 3-year-old kokanee begin a metamorphosis that will result in their death within a month.

After spending a lifetime, which is typically between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years, as a silver-colored fish with evenly rounded features, the kokanee turn red and return to the river where they were released to spawn.

Suddenly, without warning, the males' skin turns red, a large hump bulges on their backs, their lower jaws jut out and turn up showing large teeth, and their mood turns aggressive. Changes in the female are not as pronounced.

If it weren't so beautiful, it would be frightening.

Because of low water conditions statewide this year, the number of eggs necessary to meet management objectives at Strawberry will be only half what they were the past few years.

''That is, instead of getting 1 million fish we're hoping to get 500,000 out of this year's spawn. What that will mean is instead of collecting 2.5 million eggs, we'll only need to collect 1.25 million,'' said Wilson.

''With the low water, the hatcheries are limited as far as how many fish they can raise this year.''

The average female kokanee, which is between 16 and 18 inches long and will weigh between four and five pounds, will produce about 1,200 eggs. Under hatchery conditions, about 40 percent of the eggs will fertilize and hatch. The success rate of eggs hatched under natural conditions is much lower.

In order to get the number of eggs needed this year, while fearing a weak run in Strawberry River, Wilson has set up traps in Indian Creek for the first time in four years. Trapped fish will be loaded into trucks, then taken to the fish station along the Strawberry River.

Some of the fish in the traps will be released to spawn naturally. Others will be stripped of their eggs and sperm. The eggs will then be raised in a hatchery and released at an impressionable age, which is usually when they are between one and two inches, into the Strawberry River. Biologists hope the imprint of the river will remain with the fish and that after a lifetime of nearly three years they will return to spawn.

The DWR and U.S. Forest Service have built a viewing area along the Strawberry River. Along with interpretive signs, there are boardwalks near the river to view spawning pairs of fish. There is also information available at the nearby visitors center.

The center of the Wildlife Festival will be the Daniels Summit Lodge at the top of Daniels Canyon outside of Heber. Other activities will include a display of artwork, a number of clinics and seminars, a demonstration by search and rescue dogs and the opportunity to test the DWR's Fishing Simulator. For information, call 1-800-519-9969.

Wilson expects the run to be wrapped up by mid-October.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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