2015: The Odd Year of the Pinks (Blog Number 3, Jan. 2016)

It was an odd year for salmon. Odd because pink salmon, also called humpbacks or “humpies” only return to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington during late summer and early fall of odd numbered years. There was no run in 2014, nor will there be one in 2016. It was an odd year though, for other reasons as well. 

I have lived at Rocky Brook for 15 years, slowly becoming familiar with the rhythms and cycles of the place. Autumn is always special because of the beauty of the changing landscape and because this is when the salmon return to spawn. Rocky Brook and the larger Dosewallips into which it flows have runs of Chinook, Chum, Coho and Pink salmon as well as steelhead. No sockeye that I am aware of, probably because there are no large lakes upstream (most sockeye spend a year or so in a freshwater lake). 

Spawned-out male humpie or pink salmon in the Dosewallips River, September, 2015.

I first noticed pinks spawning in the Dosewallips in 2007. I did not observe them coming up Rocky Brook. The runs in ‘09 and ’11 were not remarkable. Then in 2013 we had a really big run of pinks. They filled shallow side channels in the Dosewallips, worked their way upstream for ten miles, and, for the first time that I had observed, a few ventured up Rocky Brook. It was quite remarkable. They were followed by the usual smaller runs of chum and coho. 

The big 2013 pink run meant that, if enough of them survived, 2015 should be another good year. What actually happened was beyond my imagination.

My first clue regarding this year’s pink run came from the Washington Fish and Game forecast in its 2015-2016 Sport Fishing Rules book. The cover had a great photo of a male pink salmon. They projected 6.5 million pink salmon returning to Puget Sound, that’s lot of fish by anyone’s count. 

At the same time, 2015 was turning out to be an unusual year, weather wise. Lowest snowpack on record. Little rain during the winter. The rain that did come brought record floods, totally rearranging river channels and leaving huge piles of rocks and trees. Drought conditions continued throughout the summer. By the end of August, both Rocky Brook and the Dosewallips were as low as I had ever seen them. There was no way any fish would be able to navigate the shallow stretches of Rocky Brook; the “Dosey” was low, but not impassible. I looked at my logbook to see that the 2013 pink salmon run had started on September 2nd.  

Then, as if answering prayers, both human and fishy, the end of August arrived with winter like rains. They started on a Friday, went all night, and by Saturday there were pinks in the rising waters of Rocky Brook. It is a relatively small watershed, so the river level fluctuates considerably with rain, rising rapidly with two or more inches, then dropping down a few days after they end. Clearly these pinks had been waiting in the Dosey for just such a flood event and they lost no time.

It quickly became apparent that this was no normal run. The numbers in Rocky Brook were unprecedented, at least from my experience. Virtually every available spawning site became occupied, and fish congregated in large groups in every pool. They even found little pockets of gravel amongst the large boulders all the way up to the falls. Washington Dept. of Fish and Game, who walk the river when fish are spawning, “counted” 800 fish in the near half mile reach between the falls and the Dosey. It was an educated guess as they were too numerous to count. They observed a few chum mixed in, but less than ten. I had never seen so much spawning activity right at my doorstep. 

So, for the next six weeks pink salmon jumped and splashed in abundance and to my delight, day and night. After two weeks the air began to be filled with the sweet-sour smell of dead fish, as the carcasses began to appear in the water and along the banks. There were way more fish than there were critters to eat them. The recycling would take time.

So, what was going on here, why so many pinks all of a sudden? And, why have I not observed any later runs of chums and coho?

According to the “Fisheries Technician” Chuck, a retired fisheries biologist who walked the river, pink salmon runs have been increasing for the past six years, though nobody is sure why. In most parts of their range, there is a large run during one year, followed by a smaller or no run at all during the next year. In northern parts of their range (Alaska), the big runs are in even numbered years, in southern parts, they are in odd numbered years. Apparently fisheries managers have tried to build up runs in “off years” with little success. I have yet to have a good understanding of why this even-odd year cycle persists, one would think that, with time, a few even number year fish would find there way south and take advantage of the fact that there are no other pinks spawning in perfectly good habitat. Maybe more time is needed for this to occur.

I thought that a radio interview with Langdon Cook, a “forager and ___ summed up the 2015 run pretty well: “The pinks have come out of nowhere. People don’t remember salmon runs like this, its like Alaska, its like Washington must have been like a hundred years ago. The mystery is why are the pinks surging while our other stocks are suffering?” 

Normally pinks are a cannery fish, the cheapest form of salmon, small and lacking the heft and fight of the other salmon, at least for sportsmen and women. However, this year’s big run saw people getting out and catching them from boats and even shorelines along salt water. People discovered they are good to eat fresh. Their abundance reminded us all of what salmon runs should look like every year. Salmon became a real presence to many people. 

So, 2015 was the year of the pinks, and looking ahead to 2017 is something salmon watchers will be doing with great expectations.   

However, the really odd thing about this year is the absence of chum and coho runs up the Dosewallips and into Rocky Brook. As mentioned above, fisheries biologists counted only three hatchery coho amidst the pinks but that’s all. The pinks were done by mid October. I observed no other runs in October, November or December.  

In December I did observe large numbers of chums staying in the nearshore and intertidal areas of Hood Canal and the Dosewallips River, with few venturing upstream. This behavior was unusual. We know that chums tend to stay in the lower reaches of rivers and streams, but the areas I observed these fish spawning in number were wetland like, with poor gravel quality. And they for some reason avoided going up the river where great places to spawn abound.  

What is going on here? Stay tuned as they say. I will update this blog as I learn more. If there are any readers out there who can provide answers or reasonable theories, let me know. 

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, January, 2016

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