Ladyfisher

This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm
November 10th, 2008

Ghost Fish


We finally had a couple of days of rain - some of the region really was slammed with rain and there is some flooding. The rain held off too long here, and our fall salmon run, Chum or dog salmon, really suffered. If there aren't large enough numbers of salmon who do spawn there won't be a return run of their offspring in four years.

My husband, JC, and I made a couple of trips down to Chico Creek toward the end of last week. It's only a half-hour run. We had reports the salmon were finally able to make it up the creek. When we arrived the day before we planned to fish, (a little scouting trip), we were astonished to see the huge differences in what had become our favorite fall place to play with the salmon.

Two years ago I reported there had been a big change in the stream itself, and our friend Al Roberts had reported the situation to the proper county authorities. The county came in and fixed the culvert (it looks like a bridge) so the salmon could make the jump to go upstream where they spawn.

The difference this year was a big storm which took out most of the big trees along the stream. Again the country came in, removed some of the debris from the stream itself, repaired the stream bank, and placed some rocks in the stream to slow down the water flow. If they hadn't done that, the whole stream would have been gouged out, along with the banks. A real mess. I missed the way it used to be — and the way it looked, but everything changes.

I mentioned the salmon really suffered. Here's the problem. When there just isn't enough water for the fish to make the upstream spawning run, they hang off the main part of the estuary in waiting for the water in the creek to get deep enough. Salmon have an incredible sense of smell which allows them to travel thousands of miles to the ocean and back to their natal stream. They can 'smell' when there is enough water to make the spawning run. The longer they have to wait before making the run, the more they begin to break down. Our local salmon are not like Atlantic salmon. They make one spawning run and die. In fact, most do not eat once they leave the main saltwater (ocean). Some experts feel once the biological urge to spawn hits the eating urge is gone.

In a normal year the local salmon run starts about Halloween. This year it was 10 to 14 days late. For whatever reasons, this year we have a large number of what we call 'ghost' fish. Salmon who are deteriorating to the point they have parts which have turned white. I don't know if it is just a part of the dying process or if it is a fungus. Whatever the cause, half or more of the salmon we saw the two times we were at Chico were ghost fish.

I know some were in good enough shape to make it upstream to spawn. We saw a good number upstream ourselves. I know once the fish have spawned, as they are dying some do sort of float/swim back downstream. Some of the dead float back downstream as well. The smell can get pretty ripe. The good news is that the dead fish all go back into the ecosystem and furnish the spawn of the next generation food. Of course other parts of nature benefit from the dead salmon as well.

The salmon, spawning salmon and ghost salmon, are all part of the circle of life. I personally wish our salmon didn't die after spawning, but I wasn't the one in charge of that decision. Well above my pay grade as they say.

Standing out in the rain, (very comfortable thank you in our Chota rain gear, including the neat hood which moves with you) watching out toward the bigger water, hoping to see a large pod of fish coming in, I couldn't help think of the marvel I was part of. From where I was standing at that moment, I couldn't see another person. I could just as well been the only person waiting and watching for the returning salmon.

We stuck around for another hour or so to see if any more salmon would come in on the rising tide. No luck.

I don't know if we'll make another attempt this season. If we do it will probably be an hour or so just before dark, some years that had been a big winner. We'll check the tides and see if we have a match.

Regardless, I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to fish for these amazing creatures. The history of salmon is longer than ours. Once you've caught one you can be hooked too. ~ LadyFisher

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