Friday, October 8, 2010

Fall Colors and Pink Salmon

A pink salmon on her redd.  She will guard it until she dies. 
Seeing migrating salmon feels primal: a direct connection with the struggle of life.  Salmon start their lives much like their trout cousins, as a fertilized egg in a well oxygenated loose gathering of river pebbles called a redd.  Long ago a few trout-like ancestors, most likely a type of char, decided a life at sea was for them and diverged into what we know as salmon today.  There are two lineages of what we know as salmon.  The salmon and trout of the genus Salmo (brown trout, Atlantic salmon, etc.) and the salmon and trout of the genus Oncorhynchus (Red band trout, pacific salmon species, etc.).  I grew up in San Diego and had never seen a salmon in the wild.  There was a time when steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) were abundant and successfully spawned in the rivers of San Diego County.  If you can believe it, even the Tijuana River had a run of steelhead.  I came to Minnesota 6 years ago and have witnessed the run of pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) at least three times.  Luckily, their run also corresponds with some of the best fall color on the north shore of Lake Superior.  Pink salmon are native to the Pacific Ocean and are found from the Sacramento River in California all the way to Alaska.  They are also found near Siberia and as far south as Korea.  In the 1950s, pink salmon were introduced to the Great Lakes.  No other transplantation efforts were found to be successful for pink salmon apart from that of the Great Lakes.

Today they are thriving in the clean cold waters of Lake Superior and can be found in limited numbers in Lake Michigan.  In their historical range, pink salmon are endangered in California, Oregon and Washington but are stable in Canada and Alaska.  Pink salmon were intensely harvested for salt/smoke curing and canning and populations in the Pacific have suffered.  Strangely, pink salmon have a strict two year life cycle.  Fish hatch in the winter after fall spawning and immediately head for open water.  They spend exactly two years at sea or in the lake and return to the same stream they in which they were born to spawn and die.  A female will build a redd (Scandinavian word for nest) by thrashing her tail powerfully towards a section of loose gravel.  Seeing females pound their tail towards the bottom of the stream is a sight to see.  Their heads almost poke out of the water as their tails carve out the nest for the next generation of salmon.
Redd building

Females typically yield multiple clutches that may be fertilized by multiple males.  Once spawning is complete a female will guard her redd until death.  Death will come for all the salmon that enter the stream.  As soon as they begin the journey from the lake, their stomachs will begin to dissolve to make room for eggs in females and a massive physical transformation will occur in the males as well.  Males develop a enormous humped back which has lead to the nick name: 'humpies'.  Along with a hump males develop a hooked jaw and a rather mean looking appearance.  So, every two years the population of pink salmon turns over by at least half.  As far as I know, there are spawning runs every year and the strict two year phase would prevent these populations form interbreeding. 
    Our main purpose a few weeks past was to see the fall colors and get out of town for a bit.  The fact that salmon are in the rivers happens to be a bonus.

We got into Grand Marais a bit late on Friday night and it was already dark out.  This would not have been problem if we were staying in a hotel but most were booked and the rest were out of our budget for a spontaneous trip. We stayed at the Grand Marais Municipal campground right on the shore of Lake Superior.  I was happy there was a warm shower right across from our camp but my wife was not a fan of the parking lot style sites.  I did my best to enclose our fireplace from the parking lot by surrounding it with the car and tent on two sides and the lake and trees on the other sides.  The wind was blowing so hard and it was dipping down into the upper thirties so we decided to head into the tent for the night.  I left the lantern on outside the tent and after a while I moved it off the table because I thought the wind was going to blow it down.  The tent was bowing in almost to the ground with the big gusts.  About midnight the wind stopped and the rest of the weekend was sunny and nice: very rare weather for fall in Minnesota.  We headed up near Grand Portage to see the changing leaves and were rewarded with some fantastic vistas.

A secret north shore view.  A case of Sierra Nevada can be very persuasive though...

Later in the afternoon I met up with some friends and we tried our luck with the humpies.  They had been fishing a while and hadn't had much luck.  The fish don't really eat once they get into the stream, but I ended up getting one to bite on a flashy egg pattern and got it in.  A nice looking female.

We fished Cascade with about 20 other fisherman.  The shear number of fish in the stream is amazing.  There were hundreds of fish in every possible spawning location.  It's good to see they are doing so well.  Maybe I'll be back in two years to see the generation born this year. 

The maples were in top form
Caribou Lake
A nice male.  Thanks for the great pic Trevor!