Fish the color of fire

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  • Photos by TESS FREEMAN/Press file A group of kokanee rests in a deeper section of Mokins creek after a rushed attempt to swim further up the creek in 2014.

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    A male kokanee rests beneath a log in Mokins Creek before attempting its next swim through the shallow waters of the creek in 2014.

  • Photos by TESS FREEMAN/Press file A group of kokanee rests in a deeper section of Mokins creek after a rushed attempt to swim further up the creek in 2014.

  • 1

    A male kokanee rests beneath a log in Mokins Creek before attempting its next swim through the shallow waters of the creek in 2014.

Panhandle’s landlocked sockeye heading to spawning streams

By RALPH BARTHOLDT

Staff Writer

After moving to Wolf Lodge Creek in 1972, Steve Funk and his wife, Janet, noticed some curious fish in the stream.

“They were orange,” Funk recalls.

And there were quite a few splashing through the Funks’ acreage on the northeastern tip of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Almost 50 years later, the Funks are pretty well-versed in the annual ritual of landlocked sockeye salmon that travel upstream in October to spawn and die.

“We learned a lot since then,” Funk said.

The salmon, better known as kokanee, are a freshwater version of sea run, or anadromous, sockeye salmon that were introduced into many Idaho waterways in the 1930s.

Lake Coeur d’Alene, Pend Oreille and Priest Lake saw introductions, and later, Spirit and Twin Lakes, Hayden and Dworshak Reservoir were stocked with kokanee.

In the fall, sometimes as early as August when leaves tilt toward a variety of ochre hues, a few North Idaho streams see a splash of color too.

Hit by a hormonal hammer, kokanee begin turning color. It happens at different times in different places. The fishes’ silver-blue summer tone transforms into a fiery red and their heads become an olive green. The jaws of male kokanee become kiped, or hooked, extending and turning upward, and a hump forms on the backs of male fish.

The fall spawning color is probably why sockeye are called red salmon in coastal waters. In North Idaho, a portion of the newly painted kokanee squirm and flutter upstream in spawning runs that culminate in wild mating displays. Trembling and vibrating, males cover eggs with milt, and the fertilized eggs in turn are hidden in a wash of streambed gravel.

Their colorful push against the current is short-lived, however.

“They are a salmonid, so after they spawn, they die,” Funk learned long ago.

The fatty fish become part of the food chain providing valuable nutrients to streams and food for predators including eagles.

Streams in the northern part of the state including the North Fork of the Clearwater and Kelly Creek have early August and September runs of brightly-colored kokanee that have spent the summer in Dworshak Reservoir.

Because it takes longer for eggs to mature and hatch in cold water, frigid mountain streams are thought to have the earliest runs.

Some of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s landlocked sockeye travel up Wolf Lodge Creek through the Funks’ property in late fall, while in Hayden Creek the run is earlier. Lake Pend Oreille tributaries have both early and late runs.

The bulk of the state’s kokanee, however, spawn on the shoreline of lakes, where egg survival is more likely.

Fish and Game managers prefer the lake spawners because their populations can be controlled and accounted for.

As part of a management effort, Rob Ryan of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game put a weir on Hayden Creek to keep the kokanee from running up the stream to spawn, but it was torn down, he thinks, because residents like to observe the colorful fish in the stream.

“People like watching kokanee,” Ryan said. “They are cool to watch.”

He has counted more than 2,000 fish in a two-mile stretch of the creek.

Mokins Creek on Hayden Lake’s northeast corner has a small run of kokanee, he said, and by September bunches of the lake’s population of kokanee are cruising the shoreline looking for a stream to shoot. Honeysuckle Beach is a popular spot for pods of fish in the fall.

“If you spent enough time down there today, you will probably see some,” Ryan said.

Trestle Creek on the north side of Lake Pend Oreille is also a popular place to view spawning kokanee. As are Granite and Clear Creek, on the Pend Oreille’s east side where Fish and Game has a egg-collecting station. Biologists collect and fertilize eggs at Granite Creek to be raised at the Cabinet Gorge hatchery. The wild stock is used to replenish Idaho kokanee fisheries. Brickle Creek on the south end of Spirit Lake once had a kokanee run as well, Ryan said.

“We don’t see many, if any, there now,” he said.

In Coeur d’Alene, shore-spawning kokanee usually spawn from October to December. Those stocks are more likely to survive because lake shores aren’t subject to the same violent, seasonal fluctuations as streams.

“Streams aren’t a real stable place to be a fish egg,” Ryan said.

Over time, stream-run kokanee stock may go away if they are not manually replenished by the Fish and Game department.

Although he still sees them trickle underneath his bridge spanning Wolf Lodge Creek, Funk doesn’t count nearly as many spawning kokanee as he once did.

“We used to see quite a few,” he said. “Now, we’re lucky to see three or four.”

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Contact Ralph Bartholdt at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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