photo: South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
As the weather chills, the local streams and rivers are festooned with the lovely shades of orange and red of the turning leaves. This season also marks the last weeks in the life cycle of many salmon species as they travel up these rivers and streams to spawn and die.
Using a sense not completely understood by biologists, millions of migratory salmon return to their home streams to lay eggs.
After swimming up the stream to their spawning spot the female chooses a spot in the shallow, but swift flowing part of the river that is ensured to be highly oxygenated, called the riffle. In some of the inland streams that location can be many hundreds of miles up rapids and past many impediments. Here she digs a depression in the gravel that will serve as her nest or redd. The males will put on an impressive show biting and jumping to show their dominance and protect their chosen female from other males. After the eggs are laid in the redd, the male will deposit sperm over them, and the female will cover the eggs with gravel to protect them. A female may create as many as seven redds before she is finished spawning and each redd may hold as many as 5,000 eggs.
As soon as the salmon enter the fresh water of the stream their skins begin to change color, their sexual dimorphism enhances, they stop eating and they begin their decaying process. A migrating salmon typically lives for about two weeks after entering the freshwater.
The carcasses provide an important food source to other animals and small invertebrates who in turn provide food for the salmon fry (baby salmon) as they get older. Additionally, the nutrients given off by the rotting carcass are important fertilizers to the plants and trees growing on the banks, which in turn provide essential root systems that prevent erosion and protects the streams for further generations of salmon.
There are seven species of salmon in the Pacific Northwest: Pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka), Coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), Chum (Oncorhynchus keta), Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki clarki).
All of these species have very different life-cycles – some spend several years before they migrate up streams; some can run and spawn several times before dying; some only spawn at the mouth of streams, where others need to spawn in lakes at the head of rivers. This unique phenomenon of the salmon running can be viewed in streams and rivers all across the Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.
The Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail located off of Hwy 101 opens up for full tours with docents answering questions from November 2 through to December 1 from 10 AM to 4 PM on weekends. This trail is maintained by the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group and their website is a great resource for learning about the trail and salmon ecology.
Beginning at the head of Oyster Bay, at the traditional site of the Sawamish/T’Peeksin village (ancestors of today’s Squaxin Island Tribe], this trail was once part of a greater network of Native American trails that connected South Puget Sound with the Pacific Coast. The Kennedy Creek was known as “Place of the Singing Fish” by the Squaxin Island Tribe due to the resonant singing of the frogs heard along the stream’s banks in the spring. Chum (or dog fish) are the dominant species that run this stream at numbers as high as 800,000 salmon a year. The tribe harvested these fish for oil and for food, drying them on racks. The salmon can be seen running right from the creek’s bank.
The Salmon Center located in Belfair is open from 8 AM until 5 PM, Monday through Friday. Besides offering interesting exhibits about salmon ecology, they operate salmon traps on the Union River (off of Highway 300) that target adult summer Chums.
As you continue along the South Shore of the Hood Canal, Twanoh Creek in Twanoh State Park offers good vantage points to view running salmon.
At the bend of the Hood Canal on a tributary of the Skokomish Watershed is George Adams Fish Hatchery run by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Each spring they release 500,000 juvenile Coho into the Purdy Creek. While the hatchery does not have scheduled tours, the friendly staff are eager to answer questions and the pens are visible from the Highway.
The Hoodsport Fish Hatchery located in Hoodsport also does not offer scheduled tours, but in the fall the WDFW offers very popular Chum salmon fishing classes from the beach out front of the hatchery.
The Quilcene National Hatchery has been run continuously since 1911. Now focusing on Coho stock, the Quilcene National Hatchery has raised nearly every species of salmon. The hatchery successfully reintroduced Chum salmon back to the Big Quilcene River and increased winter Steelhead populations of the Puget Sound. They are open from 7:30 AM to 3 PM on weekdays and only on weekends and holidays in the spring and summer when the camp host volunteers are present. Visitors are encouraged to tour the facility and meet the hatchery staff.
More Salmon Viewing
Situated in the Belfair State Park are the Big Mission and Little Mission Creeks, which offer great salmon viewing. A little north of the North Shore Road following Elfendahl Pass Rd is Stimson Creek, a good place to view spawning salmon.
For a list of salmon spotting sites, WDFW have created an interactive multi-layer map called SalmonScape,
that shows the streams and tributaries used by migratory salmon in the state.