Every Summer millions of salmon return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn in the Bristol Bay drainage. These salmon spread life through the highways of water carved over thousands of years in this region. While spawning they dig their beds in almost every available piece of real-estate that holds gravel, which is needed to bed and protect their eggs during fertilization and in early developmental periods. During this time all of the bears, trout, birds, and plant life that exists in or around these waters capitalize on this brief abundant source of nutrients. These salmon are the life blood of a extremely harsh and unforgiving climate that would not exist without their support.
The following spring the salmon eggs hatch and another generation of salmon begin their life’s journey. These newly hatched salmon will spend the next two years in fresh water, before heading to the ocean for their great migration. Eventually they will return back to their natal fresh water streams and rivers to spawn and die just as their species have for thousands of years. My focus is to talk a little about the two years they spend in the fresh water before they reach the salt waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
When salmon eggs hatch, they first grow into what is called an alevin, which is still feeding off of the egg sac. After finishing the egg sac, the alevin emerges from its gravel bed as a young fry, a small needle sized fish ranging from about a half inch to two inches in length depending on age. Lost and confused about its current surroundings the fry head for cover, looking for a comfortable area with slow, if any, current and ample structure for their safety. At this stage the fry live a delicate existence, trying to avoid larger hungry fish as well as birds that depend on them for their own survival. These fry tend to hug the banks of the rivers in slower currents while they make their next move toward joining large schools of other fry, where the phrase “safety in numbers” is well exemplified.
Some water sheds in Bristol Bay will have all 5 species of Pacific salmon, while others will host only one or two. Pink (humpys), chum (dog), coho (silver), and chinook (king) salmon all rear to smolt stages in the the rivers within which they spawned. Although the young salmon often meet their demise outside of migration patterns, the largest feeding frenzy of smolt from these four Pacific salmon species takes place as the huge schools gather and head down stream toward the ocean. Sockeye (red) salmon as fry will migrate to lakes, or ponds to grow to the smolt stage before heading to the salt water. During their fresh water migrations, larger predators such as trout and birds take advantage of their vulnerability. This migration creates a perfect opportunity for one of the largest annual buffets these predators look forward to every year.
In vulnerable areas where schools of smolt are pinched or forced though the prime trout feeding zones, the heavy flow of young and determined smolt find their only safety in swimming with the school and playing the odds. This is an awesome opportunity for the trout to capitalize on plentiful early season feeding and for anglers to throw big meaty bait fish patterns at aggressively feeding trophy rainbows. These young salmon face a tremendous uphill battle from the moment the female salmon releases her eggs into the spawning gravel to when they return to the rivers as mature adults staging to spread their own eggs and milt. This is only the first chapter in a salmon’s life, for the oceans provide a whole new world of obstacles and hardships that will need to be overcome in order for a salmon to return to its home waters to spawn. It is said that out of every 4,000 to 7,000 eggs laid from a mature female salmon, only 2 mature salmon will survive and return back to their natal rivers to carry on their legacy. Those are some pretty big odds, and as such its our job as anglers to respect every fish, whether its being harvested, or returned to the river to live another day. Do your part and fish responsibly.