Salmon remains along the river, photo by Cal Thomas

The story of the salmon is such a perfect cycle of life it is hard to see a beginning or ending to their life.  The call that beckons them from the oceans to return to their birthplace is a powerful tale and older than history.  Once the salmon re-enter fresh water they will cease eating and begin the process of dying.  Once spawned and their eggs lay safely in the pebbles of the rivers and streams, the salmon give one last gift to the future generation of their species, their decaying bodies will provide nourishment to their young.  Also the dying salmon will provide body fat for the hibernating black bear and feed the young chicks of the eagles.

Salmon will travel hundreds of miles to their spawning grounds, and Chinook and Sockeye have been know to travel up to 1000 miles to spawn.  When the weary fish reach their spawning beds where life once began for them, the fish ball up in a frenzy of bashing and splashing to help the females loosen their skeins of eggs.  A female will choose a spot in the gravel for her nest and dig a hole with her tail.  The males patrol and guard the females while nest preparation is being done.  Once the eggs are laid, the males will "milk" the eggs, they are then loosely covered with gravel.  The adult fish will remain as long as their strengths allow them to to protect the nest.

Incubation of a salmon egg can take up to 50 days, the colder the water, the longer the incubation.  Within the eggs a tiny salmon will develop into a simple body and break the outer skin of the eggs, this stage of salmon is called Alevin.  The Alevin can not yet swim and remain in the gravel nest.  Most of what was once the egg remains as as yolk sack to consume as they grow older.  Once the yolk sack is consumed the tiny fish enter their Fry stage of life and will only be about 1 inch long with a brown/gray color to help them hide.  Fry because of their size are food for many animals.

 Salmon courting in the Sauk River, photo by Rick Korpienen

Fry spend all of their time feeding to increase their size.  Once they reach about 2 inches they will develop striping along their sides called Parr marks, and the salmon at this stage are called Parr or Fingerling.  The Chum and Humpy salmon at this time will head out to salt water, the Chinook will remain for up to 1 year and the Sockeye up 3 years.  When the Parr develop their silver they are referred to as Smolts and will head downstream to the estuaries where their bodies undergo adaption to saltwater.  Many of the salmon will not survive this transformation. Once adapted to the estuaries, they will swim out to the ocean and form loose schools of salmon where they will live from 1 to 5 years.  Then one season they will hear the beckoning call to return to the rivers and have their young.

Spawned Chum Salmon exhausted, lie dying in the shallows, photo by Cal Thomas

After the Spawning takes place, the exhausted adults lay in the shallows of the rivers dying, their purpose fulfilled.  Their bodies will become the nourishment for a new generation of salmon completing their cycle of life.