Wasatch County’s salmon turn red, heralding death and then birth of offspring across Utah

Visitors to the Stawberry Reservoir visitors center got a chance to see adult male Kokanee Salmon up close as the DNR staff presented the three year old fish to curious families.
David Jackson/Park Record

The facility behind the Strawberry Reservoir Visitor Center was buzzing with guests and excitement Saturday as 3-year-old pink Kokanee Salmon swam in long rectangular pools amid Division of Wildlife Resources workers in waders.

Curious guests were welcome to ask any questions about the strangely colored aquatic creatures, and several were able to feel the bright surface of the fish.

Most of the repeated questions — why the fish turn color, why they’re diverted from the stream to the facility, what will happen to them after, why had the males developed hooked lips and arched backs — had a shared answer: They’re going to die. Though many will reproduce naturally in the subsidiaries around Strawberry Reservoir, many others are caught and harvested by DWR to ensure the Kokanee population is replenished across the state.

“We’ll sort these fish for the males and females, and then on Mondays and Thursdays we spawn the fish,” DWR Strawberry project biologist Wes Pierce said. “We’ll take the eggs back to a fish hatchery, they’ll be raised up, they’ll come back here or one of 10 other waters in the state.”

They aim to collect about 3 million eggs, after which they’ll release the male fish from the facility and stop trapping others.

Just as leaves shift into bright shades to indicate an upcoming autumn, Pierce said the salmons’ color change is an omen to the fast-approaching end of their lives. The salmons’ turn to the color salmon is an indication that the fish have begun to consume themselves, digesting their innards, as their primary function is no longer to survive and live but to reproduce and die. Their instinctive journeys upstream will be among the last things they do.

“They reabsorb their scales, and all their color is out,” he said. “If you cut these fish open, there’s nothing inside. There’s just enough for these fish to survive. … They physically die. There’s no other option for these fish after they turn pink.”

Though they were all unavailable for comment, the fish don’t seem to take issue with this curve of their life cycle. Less fortunate peers didn’t live long enough to see their full maturity, caught by anglers or predators when their insides were still red and their outsides silver.

As a sport fish introduced to Utah about 30 years ago, Kokanee are a prized yet difficult catch, DWR public outreach manager Scott Root said.

“It took several years for the public — the anglers — to figure out how to catch the Kokanee,” he said. “If you can catch a Kokanee out there when it’s just as silver as can be on the outside, that red salmon flesh — we all know salmon tastes wonderful.”

Even with their downriggers, depth finders and skilled patience, however, many people have a hard time hooking a Kokanee simply because they’re not hungry for whatever’s being served on a hook.

“All they eat is zooplankton, which are tiny crustaceans, so when you’re catching these fish, you’re not catching these fish because they’re hungry or you’re feeding them something,” Pierce explained. “They are only striking because of it’s an aggression strike.”

In a sense, the fish that can hold their tempers are the ones that live long enough to turn red.

A lone male Kokanee Salmon in Indian Creek at the south end of Stawberry reservoir.
David Jackson/Park Record

From Sept. 10 to Nov. 30, it is illegal to keep any Kokanee regardless of how willing they are to bite. After that, anglers will be competing with a new generation, and 2-year-old Kokanee will become 3-year-old Kokanee, and make their way upstream to mate next fall.

The fish that recently turned pink won’t be around then, but again, they don’t seem very bothered.

“Have a good day swimming,” a young kid said to two. They didn’t acknowledge the instruction, intent on their instinctual mission.

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