Corralling kokanee: Annual egg roundup comes to Williams Fork
October 27, 2009
The morning air was frigid – so cold, parts of the Williams Fork inlet froze, delaying that day’s salmon spawn until the ice broke up at a temporary barricade upriver.
But in spite of the cold, the timing was ripe for the harvesting and fertilization of kokanee salmon eggs, a ritual marking the season as predictable as the fallen aspen leaves.
“The fish react to the water temperature; that puts them in the mood for love,” said Deanna Freng of the Division of Wildlife, a qualified sample collector who would be testing fish for disease alongside the spawning process. In the past 10 years, fish in the Williams Fork have tested negative, she said.
Once ready, a brigade of waders-wearing, net-toting DOW officers and retirees-turned-volunteers gathered near the entrance to the reservoir with plans to work their way upstream.
Meanwhile, two individuals zapped the water with about 250 watts of electricity coming from a backpack “Electrofisher.” Their whole ensemble – waders, the large square device on their backs and the long probe with a large ring at the end – resembled a sort of river-roaming Ghostbuster.
The Electrofisher’s purpose was to excite, even confuse the fish as they ventured toward their spawning bed farther up. Temporarily stunned, the fish would make themselves available for capture by volunteers with nets. Eventually, those same volunteers herded fish into what looked like an extended volleyball net stretched across the river. As the fish came closer to the net, Division officials corralled them in it, then brought the fish to live holding tanks placed in the river.
Where it all began
This process intercepts salmons’ natural inclination to spawn, then die at the place imprinted in their DNA.
If they were their Pacific Northwest counterparts traveling from the ocean upstream, they would be returning to where they originally came into the world.
But these generations of sockeye salmon are not native to Colorado and its high altitude or its early freezing temperatures, so birth usually takes place in a hatchery.
They became part of local fisheries back in the 1950s, according to Division officials.
Since then, they have served as a critical link in the food chain, augmenting Granby, Williams Fork, Wolford and Green Mountain reservoirs’ trophy-fishing reputations.
These landlocked salmon travel not to the ocean, but to the reservoir and spend their lives filter-feeding off of plankton until, perchance, large lake trout or northern pike prey on them.
“They also are viable as sport fish,” said Jon Ewert, Division fisheries biologist in Hot Sulphur Springs.
But because of freezing water temperatures in the fall, natural spawning is not as successful in Colorado’s high altitude.
“Here, there is not enough natural recruitment to keep a fishery going,” said area Wildlife Manager Mike Crosby. “So to keep a program going we have to intervene and take the eggs. There is much higher success in the hatchery.”
Buckets of eggs
Division volunteers carried salmon in buckets to a trailer set up for taking eggs and milt from female and male fish. One female can produce around 1,300 eggs, Ewert said.
From there, the eggs are transported to a hatchery in Glenwood Springs, and when about six-months old or 1.5 inches long, the tiny fish are returned to the Williams Fork River. They are also stocked in Wolford and Green Mountain reservoirs.
“We hope they are imprinted to some extent,” Ewert said.
The cycle begins again at Williams Fork as the fish travel to its larger body of water, and when 4 to 5 years old, find their way back upstream for spawning – the natural end of their life cycle.
According to Ewert, Williams Fork is the third largest spawning operation in the state, bested by Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and Lake Granby.
After Monday’s spawn, Ewert predicted the team already had collected about 975,000, which is close to what Williams Fork produces in an average year -1 million to 1.5 million eggs. In 2007, he said, the river saw a record year with 4.5 million eggs.
Once the eggs are taken and fertilized on-site, the fish are rationed out to those who have an appetite for salmon.
Members of the public waited patiently with coolers and pails. Fishing salmon, or snagging, is off limits on that stretch of the river during spawning. The Division recently increased its fine to a minimum of $155.
David Olson said snagging salmon was “pretty bad” this year, and so he and son Josh Olson drove from Eagle to collect salmon. The Division gives to each person with current fishing licenses up to 10 salmon.
“I make sure I’m the first one here every morning,” said David Olson, who likes to smoke and can his salmon. “Last Thursday, there were more than 50 people here. There were people from as far as Boulder.”
Nearby Unk Hamilton and her brother in-law Bill Sigler, both of the Denver area, tried to stay warm as they waited for the distribution of fish. Hamilton said she enjoys eating the salmon raw.
And Charlie Kinter of Hot Sulphur Springs, who also spent the morning waiting for fresh fish, prefers his canned “with jalapenos and garlic.” But the salmon he would get that day, he said, would not be for him.
Kinter planned to donate his fish to senior citizens at the Cliffview Assisted Living Center in Kremmling.
“I get the salmon so I can share it with friends who are not capable of getting here,” he said.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.