“We pulled a pink salmon out of the trap at Dryden yesterday,” Dustin Wagner told me. Dustin works for Yakama Nation Fisheries, currently trapping coho salmon for spawning; so I knew what he told me was accurate. But it was completely astonishing to me.
Pink salmon, also called humpback salmon for the huge hump that forms on males during spawning season, are, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, extinct in the Columbia River. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission doesn’t mention pinks being found in the Columbia River at all. But in a thoroughly researched document put together by Richard Hart on the fishing rights associated with the Wenatchapam Fishery Reservation, I read that pink salmon were found all the way up to Icicle Creek in what is today Leavenworth.
Pinks are more typically found near the coast, unlike their bigger cousins, the Chinook salmon. But finding one more than 500 river miles from the coast is unusual. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game states that pinks seldom go more than 40 miles upstream. But in big river systems they can go farther: as much as 250 miles upstream on the Mulchatna River, for instance.
In 2011, Spokane’s Spokesman-Review reported a record-setting migration of more than 1,500 pink salmon past Bonneville Dam. The article states, “Only six times on a record dating back to 1938 has the pink count at Bonneville totaled more than 100.” Pink salmon in the upper reaches of the Columbia River Basin are newsworthy.
All salmon stray to some extent. That is, a percentage of returning salmon don’t go back home to where they started their lives. This allows salmon to colonize other rivers and streams, which is a natural way of ensuring a disaster in one stream doesn’t spell the end for an entire population.
But that doesn’t mean an individual fish straying to another location is going to meet with success. There must be other fish of the same species who have also strayed. And the habitat has to be right. Pink salmon prefer gravel without a lot of fine material mixed in. In fact, the act of spawning, which churns up gravel as the salmon digs in with its tail to make a redd (nest), removes fine sediment. So, in a sense, salmon create the habitat best for their eggs when they return year after year to dig in the same area. Landing in a different spot is a bigger risk.
Competition for good habitat can also be tough. Chinook salmon can weigh 30 pounds or more. The average pink weighs about 8 pounds. The bigger the female, the more likely she is to get the spot she wants for her redd. It makes sense, if you’re a smaller species, to stick to habitat other salmon might not care for, like estuaries and streams close to the coast.
Pinks are a species that thrives in the north. They are scarce south of Washington state, abundant in Alaskan waters. But like other species of salmon, they are tough and resilient—and evidently capable of traveling hundreds of miles upstream, even if they usually don’t. That’s what makes fish so fascinating: they can still surprise experienced folks like Dustin, who has worked with them for many years. I don’t know if this particular pink will find a mate, but I’m cheering him on.
And even more so since I joined the Yakama Nation Fisheries team at the trap at Dryden Dam two weeks later. Another pink salmon was pulled out! For foreman Mike Whitefoot, it was only the third pink salmon he’s seen so far upstream in seven years of working here. This one was a female. She was gently released upstream of the dam, all of us hoping she’ll find that male and set the stage for future astonishment.
Julia Pinnix is visitor services manager for Leavenworth Fisheries Complex. The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. For information, visit fws.gov.