“WHOA,” my teenage son screamed. “Watch out! Those rocks are slippery. I almost fell in the river! It’s like trying to walk on greased bowling balls!”
Wading in the Klamath River on a hot summer day can be a glorious way to keep cool, but my son’s complaint about the slippery rocks nagged at me a little. While it’s tough to argue with the fear of falling in a big river, something told me I had an opportunity to help my son better understand what genuine miracles wild king salmon returning to freshwater actually are.
“What if I told you that slimy coating on the rocks is actually some pretty neat stuff,” I offered as we broke open the cooler for lunch.
“Well, dad,” he answered, “it’s kinda gross to talk about rock snot while we’re trying to eat lunch, but tell me more.”
“Those rocks wouldn’t be nearly as slippery,” I said, “if it weren’t for the king salmon that spawn and die in the Klamath every year.”
“Yeah,” son continued, “I can smell one of those stinky salmon carcasses over there.”
“Without that stinky carcass,” I said, “the bugs, plants and fish in the river wouldn’t be nearly as healthy as they are. The nutrients from the decomposing salmon even affect nearly all the plants, trees and animals outside of the water for miles around.”
“C’mon, dad, are you trying to tell me that stinky dead fish is good for something besides ruining my appetite?”
“I’d say so,” I responded. “Think of it this way: It’s like a chain. Every bit of nature around you, the river, the land, the birds and animals in and out of the water are all connected to one another, and the returning salmon connects them with the ocean.”
“So it’s like dominoes,” son said around a mouthful of BLT sandwich. “If you take one domino away, the whole process shuts down.”
“Exactly right,” I said. “You’re getting it!”
“How does that work?”
“It’s like this,” I said. “Salmon are mainly ocean-going, saltwater fish that spend the majority of their lives swimming thousands of miles out in the Pacific Ocean.”
“Yeah, I knew that,” said son.
“But they are born and die in freshwater rivers like the Klamath. The chain begins with the birth of the next generation, and more than likely in the same nest (called redds) that their parents and grandparents were also born in.”
“No way,” son exclaimed.
“Yes way,” I continued. “A salmon may roam and grow in the Pacific for three or four years traveling sometimes tens of thousands of miles before returning to freshwater to spawn. As they roam the oceans they feed on many different forms of life, including other fish that may also have come from thousands of miles away. The fish they feed on may hold nutrients in their bodies from the Canadian wilderness, or Alaska, or even Russia. These nutrients then become part of the salmon swimming up the Klamath River. That stinky dead salmon over there has likely seen a whole lot more of this world than you have.”
“That’s cool,” son said. “So that salmon may have been swimming around Hawaii when we were there last winter.”
“Who knows,” I said. “But it probably didn’t get as sunburned as you did!”
“So salmon collect nutrients from all over the world. When it’s their time to spawn they can detect their home water, the Klamath River, from thousands of miles away.”
“You’re kidding me,” smiled son. “Siri can’t find her way to the grocery store half the time!”
“And what’s really special is that scientists don’t even know how they do it. They can somehow taste their home river from thousands of miles away. When it’s time for them to spawn they’ve become enormous, strong swimmers, and it’s a good thing. What salmon have to go through to get to their spawning grounds is pretty incredible.”
“Well, like all the other creatures that would love to have salmon for dinner,” I smiled. “Maybe one of the biggest threats come from people!”
“Yeah, mom does love to eat salmon,” said son.
“So there are the fishing boats. There are orcas, sea lions and other larger fish. If a salmon can even make it to the mainland without being killed, then the real fun begins. They travel hundreds of miles against the current in the Klamath, through fast water, over waterfalls, sometimes around dams to make it to the very place they themselves were born. It’s a journey Lewis and Clark may not have been willing to make.”
“What happens to the fish,” queried son, “after they spawn? Do they just die?”
“Not right away,” I said. “Even though they stop eating when they enter the Klamath, their bodies keep going until after they have spawned. That means they, ahem, still go to the bathroom in the river.”
“Well, maybe, but this brings ocean nutrients into the Klamath as well.”
“So, you said they don’t eat after they reach fresh water.”
“That’s right, son.”
“Then how come Uncle Bill catches salmon in this river every year? How can you catch a fish that doesn’t eat? Does he use dynamite?”
“If he did,” I said, “there wouldn’t be much lift to eat!”
“There are a couple of exceptions to not eating in freshwater. No one that I know has ever talked to a fish.”
“I think Uncle Bill has.”
“OK, maybe. But there are some pretty sound theories as to why you can still catch a non-feeding salmon. One is that they started out as tiny fish eating mainly the bugs that live underwater in most rivers. There are bugs called mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, for example. An adult salmon may eat one of these simply out of habit. It’s what they ate as youngsters, so why not as adults?
“Makes sense, I guess.”
“Another theory suggests they will attack things that make them mad. It seems like adult salmon can have pretty bad tempers. Lots of bright colors seem to trigger this anger reflex, which is why fishermen are often successful fishing with bright colored flies or lures.”
“That’s pretty cool!”
“When salmon die after spawning, their bodies decompose. All those nutrients from the ocean end up on the bottom of the river, and in bird, bear and even baby salmon stomachs. These nutrients are then spread around the landscape in and out of the water.”
“Well, you asked,” I said. “It mainly comes down to poop.”
“You’re being gross again-“
“I know, but think about it. A bear eats a dead salmon. Eventually those nutrients pass through that bear and into the forest ten miles away. These nutrients fertilized the forest plant life. Animals eat those plants, then other animals eat those animals. Underwater the decomposing salmon become the nutrients needed for plants and aquatic insects to thrive, and they also make the rocks slippery!”
“So those salmon turn into the very things they ate to stay alive.”
“You could say that.”
“OK, dad, that wasn’t too boring. Can we go now?”
“If you’re ready, sure.”
“Wait a second while I wade out on the greased bowling balls to pick up that beer can.”
“That’s my boy-“
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.