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Flippin’ and floppin’ here they come

Salmon make their way upstream in Chico Creek in October 2005. - Photo by Jesse Beals/file 2005
Salmon make their way upstream in Chico Creek in October 2005.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals/file 2005

Flying through the air with determination, the return has begun.

The sleepy creeks that had given way to the lazy days of summer are beginning to pick up again with the annual return of the salmon that come to spawn in Kitsap County. Returning to local streams for hundreds of years, the salmon run generally begins around the end of September and continues through the end of December.

“Predominately, the wild fish on the (Kitsap) Peninsula are fall chum,” said Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Finfish Program Manager Jay Zischke. “(Chum) typically don’t get into local streams until mid-October.”

Although this is the current slow phase of the return, the salmon usually wait for a significant amount of rain to fall before entering to their local, native streams. The various species of salmon that return to Kitsap County include chum, coho and chinook.

“The fish are returning to the native stream they belong to,” Zischke said. “They were in the ocean for three to four years ... they change from an ocean salmon to freshwater streams.”

A difficult journey from the beginning, the life cycle of the salmon is a long struggle with a destination of spawning in local stream beds, then death. A survival of the fittest, only about 2 percent of all salmon hatched will live to adulthood, according to the University of Washington’s school of salmon research at www.fish.washington.edu.

After one to seven years, depending on salmon specie, the fish return to their home stream, river or lakes to spawn. Although scientists can’t explain how salmon know where to return, some believe that salmon can “smell” their way home.

Upon entering freshwater to spawn, the salmon stop eating and also lose their shiny, silvery colors. Male salmon often will take on bright colors, a hooked nose and large teeth while the females develop darker colors. The female salmon then choose a site they deem safe for laying eggs. Digging a nest with their tails, the female salmon then deposit their eggs with each nest containing 500 to 1,200 eggs. Only about 20 in every 100 eggs has a chance of survival to become a fry.

Once the eggs hatch late in the winter, tiny alevins nestle into the gravel and live on their yolk sacs. While living off the yolk sac, the alevins don’t need to eat, but once the sac is gone, they must find food quickly or they will not survive.

Once the salmon emerge from the gravel, they will feed on insects, while beginning their move downstream toward saltwater. Once the alevin, now fry, enter the mouth of the streams, they begin to adapt to saltwater, beginning the “smoltification” process. This adaptive period causes salmon to be less active and a bigger target to predators, causing the salmon to have to find a place to hide and feed. The salmon can spend multiple days or months in these areas, growing and getting ready for their ocean journey. Once ready, the now-juvenile salmon travel from the protective waters of the stream mouth and into the open ocean from six months to five years, most traveling north, following the coast.

With some species of salmon coming back in larger numbers than others, the most common salmon Kitsap residents will find in local streams is coho. Although chinook salmon do come back in sizable numbers, Zischke said the return is running slightly below what they had forecasted.

“Chinook is one of the Endangered Species Act’s listed fish in the Puget Sound,” Zischke added.

Multiple salmon run viewing points are located throughout the county, Zischke said with one of the most predominate runs in the Silverdale area being Chico Creek, with November being the heaviest point of the run and best time for viewing.

With most locations inaccessible to the public, Zischke said some of the best viewing locations include the mouth of Chico Creek at Kittyhawk Road where a salmon culvert runs under the roadway. Another location is the Kitsap Golf & Country Club on Golf Club Hill Road. Zischke said there is parking along the road, and is a prime spot for salmon viewing.

“Those are probably the two best (locations) during November,” Zischke said. “The cool thing about Chico Creek is that it’s like the old day saying of ‘walking on the backs of fish’ (due to high volumes of salmon).”

Zischke added that the Kitsap Mountaineers property also is a great place for salmon viewing.

“It’s a beautiful fall walk,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s one of the many natural resources around us.”

With rainy weather on the way, Zischke said people need to be patient in wanting to watch the salmon swim upstream.

“Have patience, the fish are very adaptive to waiting until the rain comes,” he said, adding that watching the salmon return is a reflection of how resourceful local residents are of the streams. “It’s an opportunity for folks to get out and enjoy part of Kitsap County. It only happens once a year.”

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