Mighty chinook overcome dams, predators, nets and keep coming back
Seattle Times staff reporter
And then it bites me. Hard.
I yelp and yank back my finger, oozing bright drops of blood.
This mighty spring chinook, still watching me, has delivered its primal message: Chinook are the king of all salmon and nobody's pet.
The biggest and strongest of the five salmon species in Northwest rivers, Columbia River spring chinook come into the river when it is full and cold. Some barrel on to remote reaches of Idaho, an inland river journey of 700 miles or so that reaches the high valleys of the Sawtooth Mountains.
Anchors of the ecosystem, chinook, even in death, bring vital nutrients upstream from the ocean to inland forests, nourishing wildlife and habitat. And while their numbers are greatly diminished from historic abundance, when as many as 16 million steelhead and salmon thronged the Columbia, some of this year's chinook runs will be huge — numbers not seen since the 1950s.
Their flesh, oilier than any other salmon to fuel their journey, sets Columbia River spring chinook apart — a fact long appreciated by the Columbia River tribes.
Each spring at Celilo Indian Village near The Dalles, hundreds of Indians from around the Northwest gather to feast on chinook roasted on alder-wood fires, eaten sitting on tule mats spread on the earthen floor of the longhouse. This First Salmon ceremony has since time immemorial celebrated the return of the tribes' most sacred food.
Tribal elders remember when the falls at Celilo, one of the greatest salmon fisheries the world has ever known, roared loud as thunder, the echo bouncing off basalt cliffs, the spray wetting and cooling their faces as fishermen pulled two and three leaping fish with each dip of their net.
While the falls are long gone, drowned by the reservoir backed up by The Dalles Dam in 1957, the reverence for spring chinook abides.
"It is a food from our Creator, and it sustains us," said Melinda Jim, 54, a Warm Springs tribal member who cans 17 dozen jars of salmon every year and eats salmon almost daily. "We wouldn't be here without it," she said.
"In our religious ways, it was the first food that named itself for our benefit when the Creator called to all of nature to come forward for our food," said Thomas Morning Owl, master of ceremonies for the powwow at the Celilo a week ago Sunday. "We honor salmon for that, until the end of time. Eating it is almost like communion."
For Rodney Risley, 73, of Kelso, owner of the Miss Roxanne, there also is no other fish that compares. "They are so fat, they are so good ... they are just a beautiful fish," Risley says, his weathered face softening. "The prettiest fish there is."
The scales of a spring chinook seem to make their own light: They refract color in their silver shine — lavender, pink, green, gold and more.
The scales, cupped like a contact lens, are made of calcium and cover every inch of the fish but the head and fins. Flexible and strong, each scale has rings in it that scientists can read like the rings of a tree, counting the age of the fish and the years spent at sea.
Their scales, which overlap like shingles on a roof, become larger and harder as the fish matures. The scales are clear, and bend and flex with the fish as it moves. Rub your hand down the fish toward the tail and it is slippery-smooth; go the other way and it is rough as a cat's tongue.
All salmon are also covered with a slick layer of slime that helps them glide through the water and protects them from bacterial infection. The telltale "fishy" smell comes from the slime, which is secreted from gland cells scattered across the surface of the salmon.
Some fish are extravagantly endowed with such cells: A footlong hagfish can secrete a pail full of slime, says Charmane Ashbrook, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The chinook's color comes from pigment in the skin; the color changes by hormonal cues as the fish enters its spawning phase. Some salmon species change form dramatically: Sockeye become crimson red; and all salmon develop bigger teeth to spar for mates, especially male chum, which grow canine-like fangs long enough to bite through a boot.
All five species of salmon — chinook, chum, coho, pink and sockeye — are carnivores, eating herring and other fish, including their own kind.
Male salmon sometimes also use those sharp teeth to grab onto their mate as they spawn, said Bruce Sanford, a chinook expert at the WDFW.
The female will dig the nest, or redd, with her powerful tail and together with her mate they release milt and eggs. The eggs lay amid the gravel and cobble, where fresh, cold, oxygenated water keeps them alive until their spring hatch.
Historically, salmon migrated 1,200 miles up the main stem of the Columbia River to Lake Windermere in British Columbia; 900 miles east up the Snake River; and up to 900 miles south into the Nevada headwaters of the Owyhee River, epic journeys now truncated by dams. Some chinook must cross nine dams to reach their home waters.
In 1995, spring chinook returns on the Columbia hit a record low of 10,000 adult fish, including both wild and hatchery fish. Improved ocean conditions with abundant food supplies have boosted returns of hatchery fish, but wild runs remain depressed.
Like Puget Sound chinook, most runs of chinook in the Columbia River are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
More than $1 billion has been spent to bring the runs back in the Columbia River Basin. These salmon are studied, counted, fought over and managed; tagged with microchips, radio tags and liquid-nitrogen brands; electronically scanned like groceries as they cross the dams; shunted through jungle-gym bypass systems that whoosh them past turbines, and some will even be hauled to sea in barges, tankers and pickups.
For all that, much about the salmon remains a mystery; even how they make it all the way back home isn't completely understood.
Scientists know salmon rely on a combination of smell, visual cues, and even the earth's geomagnetism, star positions and water temperature to get home. But how the fish put the puzzle together so reliably is not yet known.
Spring chinook migrate upstream on spring freshets as the snow melts. They are estimated to travel as much as 30 to 40 miles a day, and can sprint six to eight feet a second.
Strong, resilient, quick with their teeth and powerful, they are one tough fish. Despite sea lions, seals, dams, development and gantlets of nets, the chinook keep coming back.
Already, they are streaming into the Columbia by the thousands — sleek and fat, a silver-bright feast from the sea.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org