Sockeye salmon have become an Idaho legend. These fish with elongated, beak-looking snouts are born in five freshwater Sawtooth Valley lakes: Alturas, Pettit, Redfish, Stanley and Yellowbelly.
Habitat: Once hatched, juvenile sockeyes will stay in the lakes for up to three years. In May, they travel more than 900 miles down the Columbia and Snake rivers and drop more than 6,500 feet in elevation out to the ocean, where they continue to grow, feeding on zooplankton (a tiny marine animal). There, they live and grow for one to four years. By this time, their average weight is between two to six pounds and their average length is between 16-26 inches. While they are living in the ocean, they have silver flanks with black speckles and a bluish top.
For reasons no one knows, in June and July, the salmon make the 900 mile arduous journey back to the freshwater lake they were born in. As they return to their spawning grounds, their bodies turn bright red and their heads become a greenish color. Breeding-age males develop a humped back and hooked jaws filled with teeth. Shortly after they reach Idaho in October, they spawn and die; leaving the lakes to their young who hatch the following spring.
Facts: Sockeye numbers have dwindled rapidly since about 1950 for a number of possible reasons. Dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers make migrationto the ocean difficult. A changing climate may also be affecting their numbers. Whatever the reason, land management agencies are working to improve salmon numbers.
Land management agencies are currently studying the fish and are raising sockeye salmon in hatcheries, then releasing them into the wild, to prevent extinction.