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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture of this part of the world.

Kokanee Salmon: Sullivan Lake's Unusual Residents

by Annie B. White

Kokanee salmon, (Oncorhynchus nerka) are famous throughout the Pacific Northwest for their late fall spawning runs in mountain rivers and streams. Each November small crowds of people congregate on stream banks throughout the region to watch thousands of bright red fish struggle against the current to lay their eggs. What most people don't know is that kokanee salmon are actually a form of sockeye salmon.

Most sockeye hatch in streambeds each spring, spend two years growing strong in freshwater lakes, and then migrate out to sea. They will spend two to three years traveling the open ocean before returning to the same stream in which they hatched to lay their own eggs before dying. However, a few small populations of landlocked Sockeye salmon never make the journey out to sea - these fish are called kokanee. Each lake with a native population of kokanee salmon originated and evolved from separate sockeye runs where a few fish were left behind in the lake.


Even though they are considered the same species, kokanee are much smaller than sockeye salmon, only growing to be 9-14 inches long and weighing 1-5 lbs. During most of their lives both males and females have dark blue backs and silver sides. Kokanees can most easily be distinguished from rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout by their deeply forked tails. When ready to spawn, male kokanee changes color from silver to orange to brick red, their heads and tails turn olive green, and they develop a large dorsal hump and a hook-jaw with prominent teeth. Females undergo a similar, if less dramatic, transformation where they turn a deep gray with dark pink or red markings above the lateral line.

Kokanee are native to select lakes in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. They can also be found in Russia, Japan and the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, Canada. They are so highly valued for their taste that they have been introduced as sport fish to numerous lakes across the U.S. Intermountain West, Southwest, and Northeast. They do best in large, cold mountains lakes and reservoirs with well-oxygenated water, however most introduced populations require frequent stocking from hatcheries to persist.


Kokanee salmon were introduced to Pend Oreille County's Sullivan Lake in 1913 from Lake Whatcom, near Bellingham, WA, to increase sport fishing in the area. Over the next 32 years nearly five million kokanee were released into the lake. The popular fish flourished in their new home so well that yearly stocking stopped in 1945. Since then Sullivan Lake's salmon population has been perpetuated only through natural reproduction along Harvey Creek. Today, Sullivan Lake supports an estimated 67,000 Kokanee, so many that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have considered using Harvey Creek as a possible source of eggs for the Colville Fish Hatchery. The hatchery is run by WDFW but funded by the Colville Confederated Tribes. It supplies kokanee salmon fry (immature fish) to 72 small lakes around Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties. The tribes also organize the Chief Joseph Kokanee Enhancement Project, where released fry are monitored for survival rates and spawning success.

The average lifespan for a kokanee salmon in Sullivan Lake is four years. In November and December of each year the mature fish congregate at the south end of Sullivan Lake and begin swimming up Harvey Creek to spawn. This mass migration is triggered by their sensitivity to changes in water temperature. As the water temperature drops toward 40 degrees F, the salmon start seeking out the distinctive smell of their natal stream. They soon break off into pairs as each female digs several nests in loose gravel and sand bars. She will lay 300-1500 eggs over the course of a few days, and then the male will swim over the nests to fertilize the eggs. Once the adults have finished spawning, their energy reserves dwindle and they die within a few days. Their bodies provide much needed nutrients to the stream bed and lake, bolstering the plankton population that the hatchling kokanee will need when they emerge in the spring. In the meantime the adults also provide a rich feast for bald eagles, bears, raccoons, mink and other fish species.

Six to nine weeks later, usually sometime in February, the eggs hatch. The nearly microscopic hatchlings remain buried in the gravel bars of Harvey Creek until the spring thaw, when they are washed out into the lake. When the fry first enter Sullivan Lake they spend a few weeks hiding along the shore, growing quickly and building up their strength. Soon they head out into deeper water where they will spend the next three years traveling in large schools and feeding on zooplankton and juvenile insects. When these fish reach sexual maturity at three or four years of age, they will head back up Harvey Creek and start the cycle of life and death all over again.


Mid November to mid December is the best time to visit Sullivan Lake and Harvey Creek to see the bright red kokanee salmon spawning. From highway 31 south of Ione, take Sullivan Lake Road (County Road 9345) east toward Sullivan Lake. Park in the pullout on the West side of the road just before you cross the bridge at the South end of the lake (near Noisy Creek Campground). You can watch the fish swimming up Harvey Creek either from the bridge or along the bank. In an average year 9,000-14,000 kokanee, essentially all of the mature salmon in Sullivan Lake, will spawn in the creek. Please keep your distance and do not enter the water or disturb the fish, as this could disrupt their spawning cycle. For status reports on the kokanee run call the Sullivan Lake Ranger District at 509-446-7500.

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