Kokanee Salmon in Utah

Edith Bowen third graders watch Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
Edith Bowen third graders watch Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek
Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
It’s a cool crisp morning as my Edith Bowen third graders disembark their mini buses at Cinnamon Creek Campground and sprint for the water’s edge. We’re here to witness an animalian rite of passage as old as evolutionary time: the Salmon Run.

Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
Kokanee Salmon in Cinnamon Creek
Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling
Utahns flock to reservoirs and their adjacent streams all over the state in early autumn to watch as salmon- adorned in their fiery red spawning attire- depart their placid range waters en route to their natal homeland. It’s an extraordinary feat of endurance. The salmon, once they start, will not rest or eat for the duration of their journey upstream. We have Kokanee Salmon here in Utah, brought from the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest. ‘Kokanee’ is an Okanagan word used to refer to landlocked populations of Sockeye Salmon. Unlike their ocean-dwelling cousins, Kokanees will spend their entire lives in fresh water, trading the unattainable ocean swells for a more placid existence in inland lakes. I’ll let Blake explain how it happened. “A long time ago, some Sockeye schools got separated from one another- possibly when mountains formed, large bodies of water shrank, or some fish decided to try something new. This caused some Sockeye to be cut off from the ocean. However, all Sockeye Salmon, including Kokanees, will return to the same freshwater streams where they were born.” In the case of our fish, they are travelling from Porcupine Reservoir, in East Canyon at the southern end of Cache Valley, upstream to nesting sites along the East Fork of the Little Bear River.

And when they return, it is an impressive sight to behold! Salmon is a word derived from the Latin salmo, itself a possible derivative of salire, meaning “to leap.” And leap they do! Over beaver dams and waterfalls, rock outcroppings and logjams in order to make their way upstream. Salmon are well-known for their acrobatics even when they aren’t attempting to scale a turbulent obstacle course, and scientists are really at a loss as to why. “Some people think the salmon jump out of the water to clean parasites from their gills and scales. Others say they jump because their bodies are changing, or because they’re agitated. I think it’s because they want to get to a shallower area so they can lay their eggs.” It’s quite clear to Aspen why the fish are breaching the water today. They have places to be and evolutionary duties to fulfill.

The salmon run is a coming-of-age ritual of sorts wherein mature adult Kokanee Salmon, usually around the age of three to five years old, vie for the privilege of reproduction. For salmon, reproduction is a taxing stage of life. Their bodies morph and change colors- the males much more so than the females; social hierarchies can break down entirely as a result of competition to breed; and females may lay eggs in as many as three to five different nests, known as redds, before tirelessly defending their progeny until the very end.

During our excursion along the Little Bear River, students were able to see both the beginning and the end of the Kokanee life cycle. Adjacent to the spawning redds where the next generation lay incubating, there were several mature adults seen wavering in their task, their scales turned gray from age and exhaustion. One departed salmon washed up on the river bank, causing quite a stir amongst the young researchers gathered there.

The salmon run is a fascinating and poetic scene to witness. In their last grand gesture to the perpetuation of life, the spawning Kokanee admirably fulfill their evolutionary duty, and pass from this world to whatever is next for such an elegant fish.

Writing and reading for Wild About Utah, I’m Josh Boling.

Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading

Strand, Holly, Kokanee Salmon, Wild About Utah, October 7, 2008 https://wildaboututah.org/kokanee-salmon/

Strand, Holly, Kokanee Life Cycle, Wild About Utah, September 19, 2013, https://wildaboututah.org/kokanee-life-cycle/

Fifield, Laurie, Kokanee Salmon at Cinnamon Creek, YouTube, Sep 13, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcs6LK-O5Pg

See red spawning kokanee salmon, Sept. 16, 2017 is Kokanee Salmon Viewing Day at Strawberry & Sheep Creek, Strawberry Reservoir, Wildlife News, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/wildlife-news/2095-see-kokanee-salmon-at-strawberry-reservoir-2.html

Little Bear River/Porcupine Reservoir Salmon Run, Josh1990, The Trek Planner, Sept 17.2017, http://thetrekplanner.com/little-bear-riverporcupine-reservoir-salmon-run/

Kokanee Life Cycle

Kokanee Salmon above Porcupine Reservoir
Kokanee Salmon above Porcupine Reservoir
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

A highly compelling mating drama is taking place now in select mountain reservoirs. Utah’s colorful kokanee salmon are at the very peak of their upstream migration. Yearning to find the gravel bar in which they were born, these fish follow their noses. For the smell of that gravel birthplace–and the surrounding stream–is imprinted in young kokanee brains. Biologists call this smell the “home stream olfactory bouquet.”

Once a female kokanee is satisfied with the surrounding “olfactory bouquet,” she digs a nest in the gravel with her tail. As she digs one or more of these nests, individual males will try to guard her in order to secure their paternity. Part of the spectacle of kokanee-watching comes from the darting and biting and jostling among males attempting to get access to females. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized the female covers them with gravel.

This is the end of the line for the new parents. Within a few days of egg laying the female will die. And the male will follow soon after. Expired fish provide food for predators and scavengers such as gulls, ravens, and coyotes. Any leftover salmon will decompose and fertilize the stream waters, leading to plankton growth, which—in turn–will nourish the new crop of young salmon.

In Utah, kokanee eggs hatch between November and January. The tiny new salmon will spend their first weeks of life hiding in the gravel feeding off the remains of their egg yolk sack. After a few weeks they will emerge from the gravel to feed on plankton. By spring, these youngsters—called fingerlings– will be an inch and a half long. During spring runoff the fingerlings are swept downstream until they spill into a lake or reservoir. Now they will stay here in the open water for 2-4 years, feeding on zooplankton until they reach maturity.

For these first stages of life kokanee are dark to greenish blue on the head and back, silver on the sides and silvery or white underneath.
But at summer’s end, the spawning salmon will undergo their astonishing transformation. The males’ bodies will turn a bright red-orange. Their shape will change as well. They will acquire humped backs, hooked jaws, and elongated teeth. The females also turn red although the color may not be as striking. By late August both males and females are congregating at the mouth of the spawning stream preparing to embark on the final–and most important–mission of their lives.

For more information and locations for kokanee viewing go to www.wildaboutUtah.org. You’ll also see a video of kokanee spawning in the Little Bear River*, the main tributary of Porcupine Reservoir.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

* Many people call this Cinnamon Creek. However the Little Bear River feeds Porcupine reservoir. Cinnamon creek joins the Little Bear, as a tributary, a little bit up stream and East of Porcupine reservoir.


Photo: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Photographer
Video: Courtesy and Copyright 2013 Charles Hawkins, Photographer
Video: Courtesy and Copyright 2013 Holly Strand, Photographer
Text: Holly Strand, Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University

Where to see kokanee salmon spawning (adapted from Utah Div. of Wildlife Resources website)

The Kokanee spawning runs in Sheep Creek, Indian Creek, Strawberry River and the upper East Fork Little Bear River occur in late August through early October. Flaming Gorge Reservoir has a late-season spawning population which spawns in the Green River and along the shores of the reservoir in late October through November.

Sheep Creek is in northeastern Utah, about six miles south of Manila. The viewing site is at the Scenic Byway turnout where Sheep Creek crosses under state Route 44.

Porcupine Reservoir: Just pass Avon, turn left (there’s a sign) and head east to the reservoir. Pass the dam and follow the shelf road past the end of the reservoir. There will be a wide level area where you can park and walk down to the Little Bear River to see the salmon.

Sept. 22 is Kokanee Salmon Viewing Day.at the U.S. Forest Service visitor center at Strawberry Reservoir. Utah Div. of wildlife Biologists will be on hand to show you the salmon and answer any questions. http://wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/news/42-utah-wildlife-news/906-see-kokanee-at-strawberry.html Even if you can’t make it to this event, salmon should be visible in the Strawberry River, and other tributaries to Strawberry, from now until the first part of October.

Sources & Additional Reading

Sept. 22 is Kokanee Salmon Viewing Day.at the U.S. Forest Service visitor center at Strawberry Reservoir. Utah Div. of wildlife Biologists will be on hand to show you the salmon and answer any questions.

Fuller, P., G. Jacobs, J. Larson, and A. Fusaro. 2013. Oncorhynchus nerka. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL.
http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=915 Revision Date: 3/7/2012

Sigler, John W. and William F. Sigler. 1987. Fishes of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of NV Press.

Sloman, Katherine A., Rod W. Wilson, Sigal Balshine. 2006. Behaviour and Physiology of Fish. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.

Steward, Ron. 1994. Kokanee. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Wildlife Notebook Series No. 10. http://utah.ptfs.com/awweb/main.jsp?flag=collection&smd=1&cl=all_lib&lb_document_id=12657&itype=advs&menu=on
[accessed September 19, 2013]

Kokanee Salmon

Kokanee Salmon above Porcupine Reservoir
Kokanee Salmon above Porcupine Reservoir
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto

A little over a week ago, I saw my first kokanee salmon run up Little Bear River just east of Porcupine Reservoir. This year, researchers counted over 10,000 fish within a mile of the reservoir. That’s a record number. My friends and I marveled at these wriggling flashes of color as they struggled upstream. It inspired me to spend the week reading about salmon. Here’s what I learned.

First of all it surprised me that salmon and trout are so close genetically. Along with whitefish and grayling, they form the family Salmonidae, but salmon and trout are the most similar. The main difference between them is that salmon generally migrate from their freshwater birthplace to the sea to get more and better food. And then they return to spawn in freshwater rivers and streams where there are fewer predators. And generally – although it’s not true for all – salmon spawn once and die while trout go through a number of spawning cycles.

The Pacific Sockeye salmon resembles a silvery rainbow trout during most of its life. But when it spawns, the male especially undergoes a miraculous transformation. His head turns green, his body turns a bright red, and his back grows a bump. And his jaw begins to hook until he’s got a pronounced overbite. There’s a lot of jostling over females during breeding, and the humpback and hooked jaw helps him intimidate other male fish so he can fertilize more female eggs. And the red color is considered highly attractive to the opposite sex.

White-talied Kokanee Salmon Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto
White-talied Kokanee Salmon
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto
The kokanee is an evolutionary branch of the sockeye. Both of them spawn in freshwater nurseries and then move to a nursery lake to grow for awhile. Then the sockeye salmon migrates to the ocean while the kokanee remain in the lake. After a few years they both return to the freshwater streams to spawn and die. The funny thing is, that if you take a sockeye and keep him in a lake, he doesn’t turn red when it’s time to spawn. That’s because red color derives from carotenoid pigments in the salmon’s diet and these pigments are much more prevalent in ocean food. So why does the kokanee turn the same red as the sockeye? It’s because the sexual preference for red was so strong that the kokanee actually evolved the ability to process carotenoid pigments with 3 times the efficiency of sockeyes.

White-talied Kokanee Salmon
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Because it flexibly defines a lake as its ocean, the kokanee has become a popular fish for reintroduction into western lakes and reservoirs. In 1922, the kokanee was first introduced for sport fishing into Utah’s Bear Lake. Nowadays you can see them spawn in the Little Bear River out of Porcupine Reservoir, Sheep Creek near Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and tributary streams of Strawberry Reservoir.

If you hurry, you can still catch the last of the spawning kokanees, their bright red bodies an aquatic response to the flaming Utah maple on the surrounding hillsides.

Special thanks to Charles Hawkins (Watershed Sciences, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University) , Phaedra Budy (Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University) and Bret Roper (US Forest Service, Fish & Aquatic Ecology Unit, Logan, UT) for their comments on this piece.


Photo: Courtesy of and Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading
Aggies Help State with Fall Salmon Count 2008. Utah State Today. Sept 25, 2008. http://www.usu.edu/ust/index.cfm?article=30698

Coates, P. 2006. Salmon. London: Reaktion Books


Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka). Wildlife notebook Series No. 10.http://wildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/newkokan.pdf (accessed Oct 3, 2008)

See also:

Kokanee Salmon in Strawberry Reservoir http://www.redrockadventure.com/fishing/Strawberry/strawberry_kokanee.htm

See bright red kokanee salmon at Sheep Creek, near Flaming Gorge http://wildlife.utah.gov/news/05-09/sheep_creek.html