Pink Salmon fight to get into a tiny stream of runoff water from the Solomon Gulch hatchery in Valdez, AK. Expand this scene several thousand-fold and you have an idea of what it looked like at the hatchery weir.
Rain fell fast and hard in Valdez, Alaska. We drove along Dayville Road, heading toward the Solomon Salmon Hatchery. A pond on the land side (not ocean side) of the road was full of gulls and we stopped to see what they were interested in. The surface of the pond seemed to dance in the rain and Cathy put up her binoculars for a closer look. Suddenly she exclaimed, “those are fish on the surface!”
Sure enough, what we thought was rain agitating the surface was really the fins and backs of thousands of pink, or humpy, salmon. It was like a glimpse back into Idaho’s past when harvesting the plentiful salmon could be done with a pitchfork. We continued to gawk, amazed by the incredible sight, when a black bear ambled out into the melee, grabbed a fat fish and headed back to the trees to feast.
In another mile, we were at the hatchery at the base of Solomon Falls. The hatchery had placed a barricade across the mouth of the stream, perhaps 25 yards wide, and pink salmon and a few coho or silver salmon were stacked fin to fin, backs protruding from the water. There were tens of thousands of fish at the weir trying to get over, failing and eventually diverting up the channel into the hatchery. For several hundred yards all around the mouth of the stream, salmon were packed in, following their instinct to return to their ancestral spawning ground. It was incredible and a scene that repeats itself day after day for weeks.
In Idaho, we tend to only think about two kinds of ocean going salmon, king or chinook salmon and the red or sockeye salmon that clings so tenuously to continued existence in Idaho. Coho/silver salmon were declared extinct in Idaho in 1986. However, through efforts at the Nez Perce tribe hatchery, silvers have been successfully re-introduced and now provide a fishery on the lower Clearwater and Snake rivers.
There is one more Pacific species that seldom gets the acclaim it deserves though. Chum salmon, also called dog salmon, really aren’t sought after by two-legged anglers but when humans do fish for them, it is usually with techniques other than rod and reel. Native Alaskans still depend upon dried chum salmon to feed their sled dogs throughout the winter.
Alaskans tend to rate salmon by taste rather than by size and consider themselves salmon connoisseurs (some say salmon snobs). The king salmon, by far the largest of the five Alaskan species, is also considered the best eating by many Alaskans. Silver salmon, averaging 8-9 pounds but growing up to 20 pounds, are a close second. Sockeye salmon, a mid-sized salmon and the namesake of Idaho’s Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains, while still considered excellent table fare, ranks third for some, first for others. Not many Alaskans fish for pink salmon, the smallest of the ocean-run salmon, which they consider only so-so on the table. They are important in the canned salmon market, though. As stated before, chums, the second largest of the salmon, are rarely consumed by humans, especially Alaskans.
These five Pacific Ocean species are a tremendous boon for the Alaskan economy. Besides the millions of pounds canned annually and fresh salmon shipped around the world, all of which helps support a huge commercial fishing industry, sportfishing is huge, drawing in thousands of anglers a year.
Salmon are also an important seasonal food source for many Alaskan bears, eagles, otters, sea lions, seals and scavengers like gulls at the top of the food chain all the way down to micro-organisms and likely play a keystone role in the ecology of the area.
Seeing and catching Alaska salmon has been a highlight of our trip to Alaska so far. It has been awesome to see this incredible resource up close.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho