The Mysteries World of Mergansers

Blog 15

April, 2023

Can you find the merganser in this photo?

Living in a temperate rainforest along a year-round stream one would think that there would be all kinds of creatures coming and going; the air would be filled with bird-song during the spring, animals would  be coming to the creek to drink, eat and bathe, fish would be readily seen in the clear water. After all, a stream is a natural trail, a magnet for wildlife, an ecotone or edge where two different habitats meet such that critters from both are encountered. 

This has not been the case for me here.

Yes there are resident and visitor animals, but they are spread out, secretive, often most active at night. I have read that the diversity found in Pacific Northwest forests, while similar to those of a tropical rainforest, lies more in what happens underground, within the world of microorganisms: fungus, ants, termites, etc. It is a world where creatures that decompose the abundant wood thrive. I am only just beginning to appreciate this and find ways to observe this hidden, but pulsing with life, world right beneath my feet.

Not long after I moved here, in 1999, I began to keep a journal of sorts, making note of things that I observed above ground and the date. Initial entries were the obvious; deer, elk, river otters, dippers, robins arriving, the date that the first Indian plums appeared, and the spawning runs of salmon. I didn’t record my first merganser until 2012. This surprises me that it had taken so long to see one. After all, they can be quite flashy, virtually impossible to miss, especially the males. But, I have learned that they are secretive, wary of humans, and not always nearby, especially in Rocky Brook.

The Observatory

I have what I call a “JaMexican Style Composting Toilet” situated about fifteen feet from Rocky Brook. It has come to be known as “The Observatory”. As one would expect, time is spent sitting out there, especially in the mornings. I use it year-round, so it is kind of like my perch, a place to both observe and think. It acts as a“blind”, wildlife are less apt to see me when I am in there, sitting still. 

My journal indicates that I sighted my first merganser in February, 2012. The bird was seen in the pool just below the rapids, to the right of The Observatory. This is a strategic spot, anything that swims or is carried downstream needs to pass this point. The timing first suggested that this bird was watching for emergent pink salmon from the previous year’s spawning. But in looking at Fish and Game’s data, 2011 was not a good pink salmon year. However, there had been nearly sixty coho counted that fall, so I would guess that this bird was watching for emergent coho fry.

While this initial journal entry did not note what kind of merganser it was, based on subsequent sightings, this was undoubtedly a male common merganser (Mergus merganser, known as goosander in Europe). Another common name is “fish duck” because it feeds mostly on fish. Mergansers are designed for diving, with legs to the rear of the body which facilitates powerful underwater swimming (but which makes them look awkward when trying to walk on solid ground). They also have a serrated bill for holding the slippery fish until they can be swallowed whole.  

Based on my notes, I see mergansers in Rocky Brook only twice a year, in the late winter and early spring. Adult males are sometimes seen sitting in pools below a rapids, often the very same place I first observed one. I assume they are feeding on emergent fry. in reading up on their life history in other places, males typically appear first, the females one to three weeks later. I have yet to observe a female this time of year.  

After this initial late winter/spring sighting, I do not see mergansers again until early summer. This time it is a female that I observe, always with a raft of small chicks in tow. 

Both times, as soon as my presence is sensed, they are gone; the big males take to the wing and head downstream, the females usually speed up their downriver float to encourage the chicks to hurry to safety (since they have yet to fly). 

Salmon Alerts

Mergansers and eagles are the two “indicator” birds that alert me to the presence of salmon. Bald eagles tend to stay along the Hood Canal shoreline, three miles downstream.  A meal is much more dependable there. However, when there are large salmon or steelhead up the Dosewallips or in Rocky Brook, at least one or two bald eagles move upstream and perch in a tall tree, watching for their chance to swoop down and feed. They announce their presence with their fluty call, which I have come to recognize. This only happens from September through December though, the general spawning season here. Otherwise I rarely observe eagles along Rocky Brook or my stretch of the larger Dosewallips river.

Adult male common mergansers alert me in a different way. They are not much interested in the big spawning fish, rather they feed on small fry and fingerlings, and, I would guess, sometimes  eggs. I do not hear them, but seeing them tells me that salmon have emerged from their time in the gravel to become free swimming fry. This usually happens from January through March. I will walk down to the Observatory and be startled by the flash of white as an adult male merganser takes to the air and heads downstream, uncomfortable with my presence.

I was reminded recently of a third salmon alert system I depend on: Washington Fish and Wildlife biologists doing their somewhat regular stream walks. It being mid March, I was surprised to notice orange tape flagging three places right across from the Observatory. It could mean only one thing, they had walked the stream and marked redds (places where gravel had been moved around and eggs fertilized and deposited). This time of year, they had to be steelhead or rainbow trout. 

I took time to sit by the area, hoping to see some actual fish. No luck. I returned with a powerful flashlight at night and scanned the area, expecting to see some activity (steelhead seem to be more active under cover of darkness), but again, nothing. 

I could only conclude that I had missed the actual spawning, but that was okay. The redds told me that there would be steelhead or rainbow trout fry in Rocky Brook this year. Something more to look for in the coming months.

Merganser Take-Aways

Back to mergansers. So far I have learned three things about them.

1. Rocky Brook is only an occasional feeding ground for mergansers. They go up to the falls to check out the larger fish in the pool below it and floating down, past the Observatory, a trip of about a quarter mile. This happens only twice a year, first with males in the late winter early spring, then with females in early summer. 

2. The much larger Dosewallips is where mergansers must nest in cavities in trees, and reside for much of the year. It is a bigger, wilder river where it is much less likely that these wary and secretive birds would be disturbed. The Dosewallips also has more dependable feeding opportunities. 

3. I am mostly seeing the common merganser so far. As its name implies, it is the most numerous of the tree species possible. The red-breasted merganser is similar in size and appearance, but is more likely found along the coast. The hooded merganser is listed as “uncommon” and smaller than the common merganser. My journal does include a single sighting in Rocky Brook of a hooded merganser pair on March 8, 2015. 

To date I have yet to get a photo of a merganser, they up and leave as soon as my presence is sensed (and they sense me way before I see them). To remedy this I am trying a couple of things. 

First, I try to have a camera available at The Observatory, ready to snap a picture of not just a merganser, but any interesting wildlife that appears. 

Second, I am making a common merganser nesting box, to be placed it in a big cottonwood tree near The Observatory. Hopefully, one of these years a pair will decide that it is a perfect spot for nest.  

The Cornell Ornithology Lab provides design drawings and placement guidelines related to nesting boxes for various birds. It turns out a box for a common merganser would also service a pileated woodpecker, which kind of make sense since the literature states that mergansers often choose holes in trees made by these woodpeckers. Common mergansers are fairly large birds ( up to 3.5 pounds, 34 inch wingspan) so they need a pretty big tree and hole. 

Maybe an updated version of this blog will include photos of both adult and young mergansers in Rocky Brook. For this to happen there needs to be enough fish in both the Dosewallips and in Rocky Brook to sustain them. 

As they say, “the jury is out” on this. Based on the salmon runs of the past few years, things don’t look too good. 

Yet, I have to be hopeful.

Here is the merganser in the photo at the top. I typically see them as a flash of white before disappearing downstream.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

April, 2023

Blog Number 15

Next Blog should appear on June 1.

And, here is a merganser cartoon.

Mergansers are not commonly seen in Rocky Brook on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Adult male common mergansers are occasionally observed in Rocky Brook in the late winter and early spring when they appear to be feeding on emergent salmon.  Adult females with chicks are occasionally observed in early summer. They likely feed, nest and live on the larger Dosewallips river and head up Rocky Brook primarily to feed.

Where Do Salmon Go In A Flood?

Blog Number 14

February, 2023

January 2nd, day after New Years, 2023. I caught a flash of red below the deck overlooking Rocky Brook, which here can mean only one thing: coho salmon. And, this time of year meant that they would be wild, not hatchery coho as is so often the case in October.

At the very same time, a Washington Fish & Wildlife biologist was heading upstream. I knew he had just finished a walk from the bridge to the confluence with the Dosewallips River, counting fish, so I shouted out, “How many?”

He yelled back, “Nine coho”.

Wild coho spawning in early January is not unexpected. In the twenty some years I have lived along Rocky Brook, I have noticed a late December, early January small run of wild fish most years.

Ten days later, one of those “atmospheric rivers” that meteorologists talk about nowadays arrived, dumping rain for a week.

Rocky Brook at flood stage is a rolling, roaring, roiling torrent. It completely takes over the landscape, water from bank to bank, new channels forming to help deal with the huge volume of water, and higher areas with standing water as the porous soil is too saturated to allow for movement downward.

What happens to salmon when a river reaches flood stage?

This is a three part answer, since Rocky Brook now contained salmon at three life-cycle stages; eggs, embryos & alevins, fry & fingerlings, and spawning adults.

Eggs, Developing Embryos & Alevins
Recently deposited eggs, developing embryos and alevins are trapped in stream bed gravels. They cannot swim to another, less turbulent part of the river. They have to ride it out, hoping that the forces of all that water will not draw them up into the moving water where they most certainly perish.

Salmon at this stage are impacted by two things, scouring, and sedimentation.

Scouring refers to the situation where flowing water rearranges stream bed gravels. Adult female salmon usually choose a place to excavate a redd and deposit eggs which has good water flow, since the developing embryos need a regular supply of oxygen. Such sites are often below a riffle, where the water is stirred up, resulting in increased dissolved oxygen. Rocky Brook is particularly well oxygenated because of the falls and, below it, steep gradient and narrow, rocky canyon, creating the classic pool and riffle channel.

The problem with these sites is that during flood stage, this location may be subject to severe scouring. Of course, the female cannot know if this is going to be a severe flooding year; most of the time such locations are ideal for embryo and alevin development.

The historically large salmon runs resulted in females spawning in almost any available space, often later arriving females digging up and replacing previous egg deposits of earlier fish with her own. Thus, there would inevitably be places where at least some eggs would survive during a flood.

Today, with the smaller runs, this may not be the case, egg mortality due to flooding is undoubtedly higher.

Sedimentation is the second way that developing embryos and alevins may be killed as a result of river flooding.

At flood stage, a river is able to carry a much greater amount of sand and silt. Rocky Brook and the Dosewallips both go from crystal clarity to thick soupy gray and brown during a flooding event. As the rains slow and the water returns to normal, such sands and silts sink into the stream bed. Such deposits can be quite thick, and bury or smother the embryos and alevins.

Eventually water movement will sluice out these materials, cleaning gravels, but it may take months, or even years. The embryos and alevins cannot wait. By then, they have already died from insufficient oxygen or the inability to move through the gravel when the time comes to become a free-swimming fry.

Fry & Fingerlings
At the time of this year’s flooding, Rocky Brook’s salmon were not all trapped in the stream-bed gravel. There were some fry and fingerlings from the previous year; coho, steelhead, and rainbow trout.

Fry (1 to 2 inches long) and the larger fingerlings (3 to 4 inches) can move during a flood. Undoubtedly they find places along the edge or behind logs and larger rocks where the force of the water is reduced. There they wait. Rocky Brook is a relatively small watershed. Once the rains stop, after two to three days, the water level drops; within a week it is back down to what is “normal” for this time of year.

Spawning Adults
What about those nine spawning adults mentioned at the beginning.

I cannot be sure of their fate. I do know that adult salmon are accustomed to waiting for river conditions to improve. I have watched schools of adults mark time in a deep pool in the Dosewallips at its confluence with Rocky Brook for over a month, waiting for enough rain to clean out summer gunk in Rocky Brook and water levels to rise enough so they can swim up it to spawn. I would guess that the same thing happens during a flood. They find a place less buffeted by the moving water; here, most likely in the larger Dosewallips where there are more side channels.

When the water levels dropped, I did not see these pairs in Rocky Brook, but that does not mean they were not there. Wild coho are very good at hiding and finding places which I may not see. I hope they spawned successfully. If they did, their fry would grow into fingerlings in Rocky Brook 2023, head out to sea in the spring of 2024, live in the ocean someplace and grow for two years, and finally return as adults, 2026.

Of course, the most spectacular thing about a flood here is to see Rocky Brook Falls at this time. At the head of the canyon, a second waterfall, much higher appears on the slope next to it. At flood stage, Rocky Brook Falls has so much water coming down that it creates a misty wind which doesn’t allow one get very close. It is one of those “experience the power of nature” moments, when one feels small and unable to do anything but just marvel at it all and observe from a safe, relatively dryer distance.

One final point worth mentioning. When a river experiences a significant flooding event or some other major disturbance (landslide, earthquake, volcanic eruption) salmon have a kind of back-up plan. A certain percentage of a population (some estimates put this number at 10%) that returns to a particular river will “stray” meaning that they move up nearby rivers and streams rather than their “home” stream where they started out. This ensures that the population (gene pool) will survive the disturbance and usually return to the river at some future date when things have returned to normal.

The most dramatic example is the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption, in May, 1980. The heat and ash and mud flows essentially killed all the young coho, chinook and steelhead in the North Fork of the Toutle river resulting from the 1979 spawning season. This population’s genetic pool was saved by those spawning adults that strayed and spawned in adjacent rivers and streams in 1979. In succeeding years, when things improved in the Toutle, undoubtedly some of these fish naturally strayed back up the north fork Toutle, in this way, preserving the population.

Hopefully, in late December or early January 2026 another nine (or even more) wild coho will come up Rocky Brook, indicating that in spite of the floods, they successfully spawned. I’ll be watching, and hopefully still writing down what I see and learn.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Blog Number 14
Rocky Brook, February, 2023

Rocky Brook … By The Numbers

Blog Number 13

Rocky Brook becomes a “winter wonderland” when it snows. Because it is 3 miles from the sea (Hood Canal), and around 50 ft. above sea level, the snow rarely stays for long, though in 2017 it froze on December 5th and did not thaw until January 17th; forty five days of frozen ground (and plumbing).

We humans appear to like the precision of numbers, at least when they are small and we do not have to think about too many of them at once. One to one hundred is easy; a human lifespan, a dozen eggs, the price of a gallon of gas. Begin to talk about fractions and decimals or hundreds, thousands and millions and we tend to let them enter one side of our brains and quickly exit the other.

It is popular today to present some topic or concept “by the numbers”. I first noticed this in The Harper’s magazine, where, in every issue they devote a whole page to what they refer to as “Harper’s Index”. Each is a fascinating and often enlightening perspective on a wide range of topics.

Recently I noticed my local newspaper, The Port Townsend Leader (a weekly) doing the same thing on their second page. And the end-of year issue of National Geographic featuring photographs, had a page called “By the Numbers” with numerical statistics related to its content.

Not to be outdone, here is my version of Rocky Brook “By the Numbers.”

The length, in miles, of Rocky Brook from its confluence with the Dosewallips river to the base of the waterfall. This is essentially the river length where salmon spawning and rearing occurs (the falls presenting an insurmountable barrier).

The height, in feet, of the lower falls. There is an upper falls above with an estimated height of 75 ft. which is not visible and essentially inaccessible.

The approximate length, in miles, of main channel of Rocky Brook above the falls.

The approximate length, in miles, of the Dosewallips River, from its estuary to its headwaters on Anderson glacier on Mt. Anderson. Rocky Brook flows into the Dosewallips about three miles up from Hood Canal.

The height, in feet, of Mt. Constance, the third highest peak in the Olympics and which, with Mt Anderson (7,321 ft., tenth highest) form the upper reaches of the Dosewallips watershed.

The greatest number of salmon counted in Rocky Brook by the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. The year was 1967. The fish were pink (a.k.a. humpback) salmon.

The average number of coho salmon counted in Rocky Brook each year since 1943.
The most coho counted was 88 in 1980.

The number of years that I have lived here, next to Rocky Brook.

The year that the small hydroelectric plant was built along Rocky Brook.

was the last year that the hydroelectric plant operated. It has an intake system in the stream-bed above the falls and the plant is located below the falls, near the road. A four ft diameter penstock pipe brings water from the intake to the plant. The owners have plans and a permit to upgrade the plant, but have yet to do it.

The Dosewallips river floodplain near Rocky Brook is about 300 ft. wide. Quite naturally, the river meanders from side to side. This photo, from 2017 shows the main channel hugging the south bank. Root wads and other large wood debris are important to a healthy river ecosystem. When the river floods, it floats them down until they hang up on shallow water or interlock with other tree parts, sometimes creating logjams from bank to bank. 

Numbers of all kinds make much of the world we live in both functional and understandable. They are the language of engineers, scientists, economists and the like. Fisheries managers need to count fish in order to understand what is happening in a stream or river. The run, catch and escapement help guide their decisions.

The run is the total number of adult fish that have survived life in the ocean to head back to their stream of origin.

The catch is the number within the run that are caught en-route.

The escapement is the number of fish that make it past the “catchers” to spawn.

The run size and allowable catch help ensure that enough fish will “escape” to spawn. Fisheries biologists have to be good at counting fish accurately.

Numbers are data. Numbers in large quantities and over extended periods of time become “big data” and offer opportunities for analysis, often providing insight as to what is happening.

Ever since 1943, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been walking up Rocky Brook during the fall spawning runs, identifying and counting the fish they see. In the early years they might only walk it once a season. During the last twenty years they may walk it weekly, from September through December. I was able to obtain this data and organized it into a graph which helps me visualize patterns and note trends. Here is what my fish count graph looks like.

Pretty complicated image; lots of bars, colors, numbers and dates. The following five “take-aways”, attempt to make sense of it.

  1. Rocky Brook is primarily a coho and pink salmon stream.
  2. Coho numbers seem to not get much higher than 60 fish, usually ranging from 30 to 60. In many years less than ten may be counted.
  3. Coho numbers indicate both wild and hatchery fish. Those counted during September and October tend to be hatchery (most likely from the nearby Quilcene facility), and should have a clipped adipose (back) fin. Those counted and observed in late November through January tend to be wild fish. Counts in the past twenty years appear to include an increasing number of hatchery raised fish.
  4. Pink salmon runs (only every odd numbered year) seem to be highly variable; some years hundreds and even thousands of fish are counted, other years when a run is expected, no fish are counted. Pinks typically arrive in late August to early September, with spawning activity pretty much over by mid-October.
  5. Chum runs are highly variable. Many years none are counted. Some years there may be 20 to 30 fish observed in Rocky Brook. All of these are “Fall” Chums, typically spawning in November and December.

This year’s (2022) runs to date have been quite small; less than twenty fish. They have been for the most part hatchery raised coho. Wild coho will, hopefully, arrive sometime this month.

It looks like this may be yet another less than average year, continuing a downward trend.

But as my paternal grandmother always used to say, “You never know.” I remain hopeful (and my grandmother believed in miracles).

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook, December, 2022

Atlantic Salmon Encountered At Rocky Brook

Blog Number 12, October 2022

Well, it has happened. 

In early September (2022)

an Atlantic salmon 

appeared here at Rocky Brook. 

While it is possible that an Atlantic salmon might one day escape from a fish-farm pen, swim up the Dosewallips and try to spawn in Rocky Brook, it is quite unlikely. 

Still, to my surprise, one did make it up here. Here’s how. 

Atlantic salmon have been on my radar. I have been reading “Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish” by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins (2022) which has opened my eyes to the realities of salmon farming, both near me and globally. It got me thinking about that “other salmon” that lives on the opposite side of the continent. 

Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon are completely different species (Atlantic salmon are a single species, Salmon salar while all Pacific salmon are Onchoryhchus species). They both share the same fishy ancestor some 20 million years ago, when things were warmer and the two oceans were one. Cooling resulted in the freezing of waters to the north, creating the Arctic Ocean, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific. Salmon isolated on one side became the single species of Atlantic salmon, Salmon salar. Those on the western side evolved into the five (if you add steelhead, six) species found today, all Onchorhynchus sp..

Living on the Pacific side of North America, one can bask in the good fortune of enjoying our wild salmon abundance relative to those living on the Atlantic side. If you live in Alaska you can feel exceptionally blessed with all that wild salmon still in numbers which mimic times past and with a State fisheries management system which puts wild Pacific salmon first (no fish farms in Alaska).

Here are my nine “take aways” about Atlantic and Pacific salmon from this book which I think are worth knowing. Those interested in a fairly up-to-date and comprehensive understanding of the salmon farming industry are encouraged to read the book (quite likely available at your public library … that’s where I got my copy).  

  1. Atlantic Salmon are far more endangered than their Pacific counterparts … while at the same time their farmed version is taking over the world.

Wild populations of Atlantic salmon in eastern North American rivers generally number in the tens and maybe hundreds. Wild Pacific salmon stocks, while endangered in some rivers, still have considerable healthy populations in both North American and Asia, counted in the thousands and even millions. 

On the other hand, Atlantic salmon grown on “ fish farms” represent more than 75% (and growing) of salmon consumed in the world today.

A typical fish farm currently consists of 10 to 12 floating (but anchored to the seafloor) net pens or cages, each with 100,000 fish. Fish are raised in hatcheries first, then transported to the farm pens where they take 2 years to grow to market size. 

2. Not all farmed Salmon is necessarily bad for for the environment or for your health. 

While the book documents pervasive questionable practices within the salmon farming industry, one dominated by a few powerful individuals with profit at all costs as their primary modus operandi, it does also document instances where a few individuals are trying to change the industry in ways which make it more sustainable and healthful.

Still, the vast majority of the farmed salmon you encounter in the marketplace is raised in heavily polluting nearshore netpens where fish need antibiotics and heavy chemical treatments to survive, and dyes to be marketable.    

3. Salmon farming has a huge impact on traditional fishermen in tropical countries.

This was an eye-opener for me. Unlike the other farmed meats we consume in great quantities (beef, pork, chicken) where they can be fed plant materials, salmon on carnivores requiring a diet rich in protein. To feed them, vast numbers of small fish are industrially harvested, mostly from tropical waters where traditional subsistence fisheries operate, especially off the coast of West Africa. Salmon farms are yet another example of how the rich “developed” countries continue to steal from and overpower those poorer ones with little regard for the impacts they are having on the local humans and environments. 

There is considerable effort being made to develop alternative feeds (insect larvae and plant materials) but to date, fish farms depend on the protein rich small fishes which live in tropical and sub-tropical waters.  

4. The salmon farming world is controlled by just a few huge corporations.

The Norwegians developed and perfected the net-pen techniques for raising Atlantic salmon. Today, most fish encountered in supermarkets comes from just five producers. And, the industry continues to become smaller as these large companies buy out smaller ones in their relentless effort to increase profits and market share. 

Of the twenty largest producers, 11 have their home offices in Norway, 6 in Chile, and one each in Canada, the Faroe Islands and United Kingdom. 

5. Only two places have banned open net pen salmon farming. 

In August of 2017, one of Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens in Secret Harbor on Cypress Island (Skagit County) collapsed, releasing thousands of Atlantic salmon into the waters of Puget Sound and beginning a process of investigations and political discussions which resulted in Governor Jay Inslee signing a bill phasing out Atlantic salmon farms in the state, with a complete ban taking effect in 2025.  

In July of 2021, Argentina became the first country to declare an outright ban on fish farms in its waters.  

6. Farmed Atlantic salmon cannot interbreed with wild Pacific salmon.

Since they are in a different genus (with different gene make-up), Atlantic salmon escaping from net pens will not result in an Atlantic-Pacific hybrid emerging. However, escapees can and do have an adverse impact on wild fish, including exposure to disease and competition for food. 

Escaped farmed Atlantic salmon can interbreed with their wild Atlantic brothers and create hybrids which may adversely impact these small, struggling wild populations though. 

7. Salmon farming is moving (slowly) onto the land.

The huge negative environmental impacts of the existing floating net pens associated with salmon farms has resulted in considerable research and experimentation towards moving the whole process onto the land. The big corporations are not leading this effort; it is too profitable to avoid the real costs of raising fish by siting pens in marine waters where there is little monitoring or oversight. 

The book outlines the considerable challenges to raising salmon on land, but seems to think that it is inevitable; humans will figure out how to solve and scale up these processes and techniques. Will it be fast enough? And, what will the inevitable adverse impacts on the land be?

8. GMO Atlantic salmon may be in a supermarket (or restaurant) near you. 

In 2015 the FDA approved the marketing of a genetically modified salmon to US consumers. It is an Atlantic salmon with added Chinook and ocean pout genes, resulting in growth rates twice that of the non-GMO fish. It is currently marketed under the name “AquaAdvantage”, produced by Aqua Bounty Technologies. Technically it needs to be labeled as GMO here in the United States, however, when sold in restaurants and cafeterias or other food service venues, the labeling most likely will not appear. 

Recently, Norwegian researchers used CRISPR (gene splicing) methods to develop a sterile Atlantic salmon which appears as no different from the non-sterile variety (in terms of growth rates, omega 3 content, etc.) but which cannot interbreed with its wild Atlantic neighbors. This was done to reduce the negative impacts of escaped fish on wild populations.

Playing around with salmon genes seems to be inevitable, with impacts yet to be seen or understood. 

9. There is a seafood rating system which consumers can refer to.

The nonprofit Monterrey Bay Aquarium has developed its Seafood Watch system ( for rating the safety and environmental impacts of the foods we eat which come from the ocean. It uses a simple color code; Green meaning “Best Choice” yellow is “Good Alternative”, and red means “Avoid”.  

I recently referred to this guide regarding farmed Atlantic salmon. Their rating system allows users to be somewhat specific in their searches. For example:

Species (I chose Atlantic salmon)

Harvest Method (I chose net-pen)

Country or Region (I chose Canada)

Body of Water (I chose eastern Pacific)

They recommended that such fish be avoided. The one farmed Atlantic salmon they do recommend was “Best Choice” brand from New Zealand (though they said that only a small amount makes it to US markets).    

While this system has been criticized (mostly by the seafood industry) as being “simplistic”, it is helpful and gets one thinking about the environmental impacts and safety of what we consume. 

You might try it regarding other seafood products you commonly consume, such as tuna, shrimp and scallops.  

Now, after all that, back to that Atlantic salmon encountered in Rocky Brook. 

It was not actually found in the creek, rather in the cooler of some visiting friends.They wanted to contribute lox to our morning New York style bagels (which I had made). They picked up two packages at the store, and like most of us in a hurry, did not give much thought to reading the labels. 

I, however, do pay attention to salmon product labeling. One was wild Alaska sockeye, but the other was farmed Atlantic salmon from Newfoundland. 

We only opened the wild package. The other one returned home with my guests. 

There is a popular bumper sticker in Alaska (where there are lots of fishermen and fisherwomen who depend on wild salmon for their livelihoods). 

Seems like good advice to me. 

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook

October, 2022

The Cottonwoods Are Coming … The Cottonwoods Are Coming!

Blog Number 12, August 2022

When I moved to Rocky Brook in 1999, the Washington DOT was in the process of removing a vintage steel bridge on Highway 101, replacing it with a much less interesting concrete structure. I dreamt about keeping that rusting relic, maybe converting it into a community meeting place or at least repurposing it as a bike and pedestrian crossing for the adjacent Dosewallips State Park. I might have been able to get them to rethink the project and save this historic structure, but I was too late in the process and too new to the community. So, it was torn down, sold as scrap metal, lost forever.

Right next to the bridge were some cottonwood trees which also had to be removed in order to allow construction activities to proceed. These were big trees, tall and wide. Eagles nest every year on one giant just downstream. They are the tallest things along the river, approaching 200 ft. high. I stopped one day to count the rings as I often do when I come across fallen giants such as these.

To my astonishment, they were not even fifty years old. A fir or cedar with that kind of height and girth would be five times that age.

This “eagle tree” along the lower Dosewallips River is a cottonwood in decline. It illustrates how large these trees can become, especially along river banks where they never lack water. 

Three miles upriver from this site is where I now live, along both the Dosewallips and Rocky Brook which flows into it. Both are anadromous (salmon spawning). The “Dosey” as locals refer to it, has the distinction (for the moment) of being the only river that flows into Hood Canal, on the east side of the Olympic Mountains, with glaciers at its source. They sit on Mt. Anderson, 7,321 ft., the 4th highest peak in the Olympics. Because of the glaciers (which, like glaciers nearly everywhere, are retreating fast) the Dosewallips runs high and milky with silt in the spring and summer.

When I bought my 40 acres of floodplain and steep rocky headland, I was pleased to find some big cottonwoods amongst the predominantly alder floodplain woodland. For almost twenty years I watched and waited to see signs of young cottonwoods popping up in places to replace these old giants. Alders continued to thrive. Cedars and grand fir sprung up along the streambanks. The few existing conifers kept getting larger. But no young cottonwoods to speak of. And, all my large cottonwoods appeared to be about the same age.

I wondered why this was.

Black cottonwoods (populus trichocarpa) are considered to be short-lived trees (50 to 100 years), though they might reach tie ripe old age of 200 on occasion. Compare this to red alders (less than 100 years), big leaf maple (300+ years), Douglas fir (750 +years) … and the grand daddy of Pacific Northwest forests; Western red cedar (1000+ years).

Black cottonwoods are well adapted to riverine conditions. they thrive and depend on the constant availability of water. In the late spring I can see their reddish roots exposed, right in the middle of the river. They “sucker” readily (sending up new trees from their base or along roots), and a broken branch will, like a willow, establish itself and start a new tree if it is washed downstream and is stuck into a muddy bank.

I have a basic understanding of forest succession in this landscape. Given time, the forest here should be dominated by cedars, hemlock and aging Douglas fir. They are what are called the “climax” species. They make up an “old-growth” forest. They are shade tolerant, meaning that they grow well in the shadow of other trees. Douglas fir is the exception, it needs sunny, more open exposure to get started, and once it does, it grows tall and straight, constantly reaching for the sunshine.

Cottonwoods, on the other hand are what are referred to as “pioneer” species; trees that inhabit disturbed areas such as floodplains. They thrive in full sun and help create the conditions conducive to the longer lived trees; building up the bare soil with carbon and nutrients through leaf drop and creating some shade for those less tolerant of open conditions.

For twenty years I noticed virtually no young cottonwoods along these floodplains. Then two years ago a cottonwood forest began to appear along the floodplains of both the Dosewallips and Rocky Brook.

I can only guess at why this is happening now. Here are some possibilities

A really good seed year
While the May air is filled with the drifting cottony seeds every year, I know from my fruit trees that there are good years and less productive years. Maybe cottonwoods also have years when seeds are more viable and the success rate is high?

The ever changing rivers
Both the Dosey and Rocky Brook’s main channels have migrated to the other side of the floodplain; their former rocky bed is where the cottonwoods are thriving.

Cottonwood roots extending into the stream along Rocky Brook, with leaves sprouting from it just at the water’s edge. These roots and shoot are about ten feet away from the parent tree, which is, like all the cottonwoods here quite large, between 50 and 70 years old by my estimation.

Dryer Years
2020 and 2021 were exceptionally dry years. There were few high water flood events than usual. This contributed to making the newly exposed river banks better suited to trees since they were rarely underwater or scoured clean by raging water.

Alder Competition
Alders dominate this landscape, the result of significant soil disturbance (logging and flooding). Maybe they simply do so well under these conditions that cottonwoods cannot become established.

The author standing in front of a giant cottonwood with an alder to the right and a maple to the left. Neither of these trees will take on the size and presence of the cottonwood even though they are growing in near-ideal conditions. 

Elk and Deer Browsing
One of the more enlightening books I have come across in recent years is Wolves in the Land of Salmon by David Moskowitz. He describes populations of wolves to the north on Vancouver Island which feed on salmon along beaches, tide flats and the lower reaches of rivers there. This came as a surprise to me; like most people I associate wolves with deer, elk and other land-based mammals, not fish. But wolves are smart and, like bears, recognize a good opportunity when it appears.

In this book Moskowitz discusses elk and deer populations and how they contribute to a wolf’s diet. He notes how elk and deer prefer cottonwood, willow and cedar and tend to avoid alder. Thus, in areas where there are no wolves, where deer and elk populations explode without a natural check, elk may browse out cottonwoods in a manner which favors alder. I am pretty sure this is part of what is happening here along the Dosey and Rocky Brook since we have a large (60+ animals) resident elk herd.

Probably the most important thing that I have learned in my nearly seventy five years of paying attention to the world around me is that there usually is no simple answer to most questions. Nature is complex. Most likely the absence of young cottonwoods here for twenty plus years and all of a sudden their appearance is the result of multiple factors. It may be some combination of the above considerations, or it just well might be something completely different, something I have no awareness of. We constantly improve our understanding of this world we all share, and are often surprised at what we learn.

In any case, these young cottonwoods provide yet another fascinating thing for me to pay attention to.

The author standing amidst the developing cottonwood forest. Time will determine which, if any of these trees grows up to become a giant in 40 to 50 years. I expect to see significant deer and eld browse activity in this area this fall, winter and spring. 

And cottonwoods certainly are good for salmon. Young forests stabilize river banks, preventing erosion and silting. Big old trees create shade and calm pools for young fish to hide out. Fallen giants last for years, further creating protected areas for salmon of all ages.

While cottonwoods may take years to appear, the salmon arrive every year. Like cottonwoods they have good years and not so good years. I am hopeful that this will be the former.

Stay tuned … the salmon are coming!

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook, August, 2022.

What is the best tasting salmon?Blog Number 11, June, 2022

Here are ten what I think are pretty good answers.

The best tasting salmon
is one you catch yourself.

The best tasting salmon is
wild, not farmed.

The best tasting salmon is
not too raw, not dry and overdone, but cooked just right.

The best tasting salmon is
the first fish of the season.

The best tasting salmon is
cooked right by a river over an open wood fire.

The best tasting salmon is
cooked or smoked the traditional way,
by a Native American.

The best tasting salmon is
one which you eat with family and friends.

The best tasting salmon is
cooked only with a little butter,
and touch of lemon, nothing else.

The best tasting salmon
was the very first one you caught as a child,
fishing with your Dad or Mom.

The best tasting salmon would have been
that world record king which somehow got away.

The answer to this question really depends on four separate but related questions.

  1. How was the fish raised?
  2. How was it treated after being caught?
  3. What kind of salmon is it?
  4. How was it cooked?

How was the fish raised?

For me the only answer is that it be wild salmon raised in the ocean, not salmon farmed in a pen. I won’t get into the complicated and controversial issue as to whether or not it started out in a hatchery or in a river or creek. While I realize that over 3/4 of the salmon consumed in the world today is farmed, that it is an affordable, tasty and fairly healthy source of protein, and available year-round, farmed salmon has too many negatives for me to overlook to embrace it fully, at least now.

How was it treated after being caught?

There is nothing like the taste of a fresh-caught salmon. It is akin to the fact that a home-grown tomato out of the garden, or an ear of corn that has just come off the stalk and dropped into boiling water taste so much better. People can tell the difference and appreciate it. Fishermen today can use technology and special handling techniques to come close to this quality (bleeding, gutting, then flash-freezing within hours of catching it). This is done by more and more fishermen as they respond to the demand for great tasting salmon year-round. Still, fresh caught usually also means that one is closer to the source, influencing how we view (and taste) the fish.

What kind of salmon is it?

Back in 2019 I posted a blog (number 6) entitled “Copper River Salmon … The Best?”

Copper River might be the best marketed fish, and it often is the first fish of the season (this year appearing in restaurants and stores on May 17th, with a pricey $49 per pound price-tag in a Portland QFC), and some people swear that Copper River kings or sockeye are the best tasting, but, just like beauty, taste is in the mouth of the beholder. 

I have Alaskan friends who swear by the rare “white” Kings of the Yukon, the early chums in the Kuskokwim, or coho from the waters off Prince of Wales Island in Southeast. A few relish a kokanee from Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. Some even argue for “organic” farmed salmon from Ireland or the new “Kuterra” brand being promoted from north Vancouver Island.

Sockeye and Chinook (a.k.a. kings) are featured most in fancy restaurants. Wild fresh coho appears on menus in coastal communities where trollers work the nearshore waters. Steelhead are an angler’s dream fish, providing a good fight and mild but delicious “trout-like” flavor. 

More recently, the abundant yet oily and light pinkish flesh of chum (a.k.a. dog) salmon is appearing in fishmarkets as “keta” or “silverbright”. Its eggs are preferred for Japanese _____.  Even those abundant, yet smaller pinks (a.k.a. humpies), which used to be almost exclusively marketed in cans, are now sold fresh in some fish markets when they are running, and can taste pretty good. 

My answer to this questions is that they are all good-tasting if wild, fresh, and prepared properly. 

How was it is prepared?

Which brings us to the last question.

This is where you, the reader come in. I’m sure you have a favored way of salmon preparation. I invite you to use the comments box below to share it with me and any readers I might have. 

As for me, I grew up in Minnesota, and didn’t really experience non-canned salmon until I was in my twenties. My first real sense of how delicious it could be was when my friend Stephen Reeve prepared it on his beach at First Waterfall Creek, north of Ketchikan. He had developed a technique of cooking it over campfire coals with a wire-mesh around it so it could be turned easily, key to getting it cooked throughout quickly. All he added was some butter and lemon. I was hooked. Here was the taste of Alaska.  

Twenty-some years ago I always ordered blackened salmon when I saw it in restaurants. It was quite popular back then, part of a Cajun food wave that was cresting. The filet is liberally seasoned with cajun spice, then cooked on a hot skillet until near black on the exterior, resulting in a crisp, almost charred exterior with a moisty mellow interior. I liked the contrast from the two distinct textures and flavors. 

I think the most critical part of preparing salmon is to make sure it is cooked throughout (a challenge with some thick filets or steaks) and moist. I am always surprised at how fast a salmon cooks, seven minutes on a grill can usually be all that is needed. And, if I am dealing with fish that was frozen, I have come to prefer slow thawing (in cold water for 4 to 6 hours) and then baking it for 10 to 12 minutes wrapped in foil, with a little butter and thin slices of lime. This keeps it moist. 

I would love to hear your perspectives on both the best tasting salmon and how you prefer to cook (and eat) it. 

And, include a photo if you can (of the cooked fish, not you).

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook Yurt & Dessert + Tipi & Igloo (weather permitting)


The North American Museum of Rusty Tools and Bicycles With Flat Tires

One response to “What is the best tasting salmon?Blog Number 11, June, 2022”

  1. Doug Hatfield Avatar
    Doug Hatfield

    Hi Dennis, ” Of Salmon and Stumps”

    Here are a couple of timely quotes from James G. Swan- “The Northwest Coast” ( 1857)

    (Pages 133 & 134) “The Oystermen celebrate the 4 th of July. A speech and a great bonfire.”
    ” These ceremonies over, it was proposed to close the performance for the day by going on top of the cliff opposite, and make a tremendous big blaze…where we found an old hollow cedar stump about twenty feet high.” …
    “We went to work with a will and soon had the old stump filled full of dry spruce limbs…It was the best bonfire I ever saw…Finally set fire to the whole forest…Till the winter rains finally extinguished it.”

    (Page 108) ” The choice part of a salmon with the Indians is the head, which is stuck on a stick. and slowly roasted by the fire. The other part is cut into large, flat slices,with skewers stuck through to keep them spread; then placed in a split stick… this stick is thrust in the sand firmly and at the right distance from the fire… Clam shells are placed underneath to catch the oil…Neither pepper, salt, nor butter were allowed…”
    “I was so much pleased with this style of cooking salmon that I never wish to have it cooked in any other form, either boiled and served with melted butter, or fried with salt pork , or baked with spices. The simpler a fat salmon can be cooked, the better…” Amen to that I say…!!

    Hope your Independence Day along the banks of Rocky Brook is a feast for all the senses..!!

    Regards, Doug


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November Through March… The Months of Imagining and Wondering

Blog Number 10

After experiencing the spectacle of pinks spawning in September and October, all those “in your face” sights, sounds and smells of the world of salmon suddenly stopped by November here in Rocky Brook. Not a big fish to be seen or heard.

I know the eggs are there, beneath the gravel, hopefully fertilized, hopefully alive with the promise of another generation of fish. But I am not certain, for I really cannot see what is taking place.

Of course I could dig around in the gravel to find some eggs and look at them, but that just feels wrong (and is). The eggs have to remain undisturbed, left to do what eggs have done for millennia, away from human eyes, human curiosity, human meddling.

So, I am left to imagining and wondering.

I imagine that the resident dippers, rummaging around in the gravel for bugs, may be finding eggs and eating them.

I wonder if Rocky Brook at flood stage may be rearranging rocks, exposing the clumps of eggs to the force of the water, taking them downstream to who knows where.

I imagine elk walking mindlessly across the creek, their big hooves and heavy weight moving stones around, crushing eggs, making others visible to hungry predators.

I wonder if the mergansers I see in late January are here because there is something to eat, maybe emergent little fry in great numbers.

And I imagine most eggs just sitting there, minute by minute, day by day, first with a spot called an “eye” indicating that it has been successfully fertilized; then becoming a tiny embryo, curled up around the nourishing yolk.

I read what I can find about this time. I look at pictures. I understand the process, the going from embryo confined by the “shell” of the egg only to hatch and then be confined by the gravel. At this point it is called an alevin, still not a free swimming fish, but more like a fat wobbly worm wiggling around the safety provided by the gravel. There it continues to get just a little bit bigger, just a little bit tougher, just a little more able to survive in the “lots of things eat little fish” world above the gravel.

Pink salmon “eyed”eggs in trays at Hoodsport Hatchery. Notice the newly hatched alevins with their attached yolk sacs. Photo courtesy of WDFW Hoodsport Hatchery.
Pink salmon alevins in trays at Hoodsport Hatchery. Photo courtesy of WDFW Hoodsport Hatchery.

Most of all I wonder about what is called “emergence”, that moment in the salmon life cycle when it leaves the gravel, floats up to the place where air and water meet, takes a big breath to inflate its swim bladder, and begins life as a free-swimming fish, now called a fry.

I would love to observe, maybe even celebrate this magical moment, but I still have not figured out how, because I don’t know exactly when it happens.

Scientists (especially those working in a hatchery) have studied and observed this early salmon life, from fertilized egg to alevin to emergent fry. They know that in the wild its duration depends on a number of factors and varies from river to river, from year to year, and for different kinds of fish. They can make a pretty educated guess when emergence might happen, given some key information, in particular water temperature. Emergence is temperature dependent. The higher the water temperature, the faster the embryo develops and the lower the temperature, the greater the amount of days needed for fry emergence.

I asked Hoodsport State Fish Hatchery specialist Mark Cylwik how long pink salmon eggs take to hatch and emerge in the Dosewallips and/or Duckabush rivers where I live. He works where pink salmon are raised in tightly controlled conditions. This is what he wrote to me.

“Our fish live in a different environment than wild fish so everything I tell you is hatchery knowledge. Pink salmon will emerge from the stream bed before Coho since the adults return to the Hood Canal in early August and spawn early September (earlier than Coho). Once fertilization takes place, we use Temperature Units TU’s to calculate development. A TU is the average water temperature over a 24 hr. period subtracted from 32 deg F. For example if my water temp average was 45 Deg F minus 32 deg F  it would equal 13 TU’s gained for that 24hr period. When your TU total  equals about 1850 +/-  then the baby pinks should start emerging… least that’s when we put them in the ponds and start feeding them at the hatchery.

Due to our water temperatures this year (2021-22), that magical happy day was January 18th.

Under hatchery conditions, Coho salmon need only 1320 TU’s to emerge. Chum and Chinook take longer, needing 1,450 and 1600 TU’s respectively.”

Based on this information, I have clearly missed this year’s pink and coho emergence. But I plan on being more prepared this fall by getting a temperature gauge for Rocky Brook. Mark said they use an Onset HOBO Water Temperature PRO V2 Data Logger. You anchor it to a location in the stream and can download the info into your lap top every month or two. I plan to look into what equipment might be best for me and will let readers know what I buy and how well it works.

Pink salmon fry. Unlike all other salmon fry, pinks are silvery, without the stripes and markings (called parr). Photo courtesy of WDFW Hoodsport Hatchery.

So, last year’s good pink run is now out of my reach, they are now called smolts, living in salt water (since they spend little time in the rivers and streams where they were eggs and alevins).

Once again I have to do a bit of imagining and wondering.

I also dream that some day we ingenious and infinitely curious humans will develop a tiny camera which a little salmon could wear without much effort, recording its life out in estuaries, bays and the open ocean in a way which we could access. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook
April, 2022

I will try to add a cartoon with each new blog post. My feeder at Rocky Brook is buzzing with activity (I have both rufous and Anna’s there now). I have to fill it daily!

How To See Salmon

Rocky Brook Reflections: Blog 9

This photo of a spawning pink (a.k.a. humpback or humpie) pair illustrates how easy it is to observe adults in Rocky Brook. The water is almost always crystal clear during the fall, and there are times when the lighting can be near perfect, as is the case here.

I live right by a major waterfall, one of the area’s most visited attractions. The falls is fed by Rocky Brook, a year-round “creek” which is, in reality, a small, year-round river. To see the falls, people park right by the bridge over Rocky Brook, and walk upstream to the falls viewing area, about 1000 ft. Since I live right there (the parking area is partially on my property) I often interact with these visitors, some local, most from further afield. People invariably ask if there are any fish in Rocky Brook. In the Pacific Northwest, “fish” more often then not means salmon.

After living here for over twenty years, and having developed a keen interest in “all things salmon”, I now know that there are always fish in Rocky Brook. I see them. I understand the salmon life-cycle, the changes from egg to alevin to fry to smolt to ocean-living adult. I know where to look (under an overhanging tree by the deeper pools between the cascading rapids), and how to look (best at night with a good flashlight). But this wasn’t always the case.

When I first moved here, I was pretty much like most visitors of today. I am fascinated by the spectacle of great numbers of spawning adults, or even a single lonely female stirring up the gravel with no male in sight. Like most people, I forgot about them once the last part of their spent carcass is carried off somewhere by some hungry scavenger. Out of sight, out of mind, for another year.

My first awareness of their year-round presence was completely intellectual. Reading about their lives, I realized that there were developing embryos and tiny alevins (a new word for me at the time) living out-of-sight for months in the spaces between the gravel. I learned that Rocky Brook, being a coho river, had fish that spent a whole year in it before venturing out to the ocean to get really big. I read that virtually every river had fish that didn’t even go out to the ocean, they lived their whole lives right here, right under my nose. I learned that not all fish that I might encounter were not salmon or salmon “relatives” (trout).

Armed with this knowledge, I began to look. At first I didn’t see much, mostly a darting fry made visible by the location of the sun. The real breakthrough came when I got my first point-and-shoot underwater camera (a Christmas gift from my friend Stephanie). I mounted it on a tripod, turned it on, submerged it to about gravel level, and left it running for two or three minutes. I was astonished by what I saw.

The first time I did this was during a run of spawning pinks and chums. I had no control of focus or light settings or ability to follow the action. It was pretty much hit-or-miss. Yet those first pictures opened up a whole new world to me, they were nothing short of astonishing in their clarity, quality, and capturing of underwater action. This little point-and-shoot camera did it all automatically, even underwater. It even recorded the rushing underwater sounds.

This, one of my earliest underwater photos, was a real surprise since it shows both spawning adults and young fry sharing a deep hole just below an alder tree. I think the little fish are rainbow trout, the adults pinks. The photo was taken in September, 2015.

The real revelation came when I took the camera up to the waterfall. It is 229 ft. high, and like most waterfalls, has a deep pool carved out at its base. The pool is a popular swimming destination during the summer (about 10 ft. deep). During the rest of the year it is too cold for even wading.

I attached my camera to a tripod, pressed shoot, and lowered it into the water. To my surprise, I saw that there were all kinds of fish there, most in the fry range (four inches) but a few almost a ft. long. And the camera revealed that these fish tended to congregate right where the water over the falls meets the pool, the dynamic edge, where things to eat drop from above.

Thus I began to both film under Rocky Brook throughout the year, as well as sit down along its banks and just watch. The just watching approach is one taken by fishermen. They may not see anything, but experience tells them that there has to be something down there (hopefully something big). I came to see not really big fish, but lots of little what are referred to as “fry” (around 2 inches long) and a few somewhat larger “fingerlings” (4 inches). And every now and again, something “big” would pass my field of vision (8 to 12 inches), and really make me feel good. It must be an ingrained response we human animals have, seeing something “meal-size” eliciting more interest.

This photo taken in the pool below Rocky Brook Falls illustrates fry congregating near the dynamic edge where water over the falls meets the calmer deep pool. They are most likely rainbow trout, steelhead and/or coho salmon. Almost all of the coho, who were hatched about eight months ago, will spend the winter in Rocky Brook and head out to the ocean the following year as one-year-olds. Rainbow trout will be residents except for those that head out to sea; these are called steelhead.

I am still working on their identification. To the untrained and inexperienced eye, little salmon and trout tend to look alike. Their distinguishing characteristics are subtle, they don’t “stand” still. and prefer staying hidden, only to dart out when food appears, and then return to the shadows. Based on past counts and observations, I know what to expect. They are most likely coho, steelhead or rainbow trout fry and fingerlings.

My main guide in this effort is a little 32 page booklet called “Field Identification of Coastal Juvenile Salmonids by W. R. Pollard, G. F. Hartman, C. Groot, and Phil Edgell. It can be ordered from Harbour Publishing, PO Box 219, Madeira Park, BC, Canada V0N 2H0. The current list price is $14.95.

According to this guide, the edges of dorsal and anal fins of coho fry are white with a black stripe below. Steelhead and rainbow trout are similar, but the white on their dorsal and anal fins is mostly on the tip area. The booklet states that to be really sure of your identification, one needs to actually capture the little fish and keep them alive in stream water as you observe patterns and take measurements. I am still working on getting better at this (these little, wary fish are not that easy to catch).

This photo was taken in the “swimming hole” right below Rocky Brook Falls. The camera focused on the fingerling coho swimming about with the rest of the frame out of focus. The white line in the background indicates the edge where the water from the falls meets the pool at its base.

There are times when, if I sit down and wait, stare at an area, and the lighting is just right, I have even seen sculpins. I know they should be there. They look like dark shadows on the bottom, motionless, nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding rocks, but every now and then moving quickly to reveal their presence, just for a moment. I hope to learn more about these little bottom dwelling fish which, in some streams, can be more abundant than salmon or trout.

So, when people ask me if there are any fish in Rocky Brook, I confidently tell them that yes there are. I add that they will most likely not be able to see them because they are small fry (which, growing up in Minnesota, we would call “minnows”).

And, when there are bigger fish in the fall that I have seen (or Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife biologists doing weekly fish surveys have observed), I post this fact on a sign I have placed by the bridge. I want people to appreciate that Rocky Brook is alive and doing its part to keep salmon populations viable.

Maybe someday the technology will become available and affordable such that I can have an underwater camera in Rocky Brook and people will be able to see fish on their phone screens in real time. I’m pretty sure this will one day be the case, the way various technologies seem to be advancing.

I still recommend the old fashioned way though; sitting quietly by the streambank, waiting and watching. One sees more than just fish in this way.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook, February 1, 2022

Next Blog
Look for it about April 1 (No Fooling).

The Christmas Salmon (Blog Number 8, Dec. 2021)

The Christmas Salmon

Mature salmon can be pretty colorful during spawning. Chums are also called “calico” because they have mottled patterns in purples, greens and yellows. Kings or Chinooks become a rich reddish brown to maroon. The sides of coho males turn almost fire engine red. But, in my view, the most colorful and dramatic of spawning salmon are the sockeye; bright green and intense red over the entire body, on both males and females. 

Chum or Dog Spawning Pair
Chinook or King Salmon Spawning Pair

They make me think of Christmas.

Some might argue that the color of Christmas is white. I grew up in the Midwest where we expected (and usually got) a “white” Christmas. Decorations and marketing in the United States often emphasizes holiday whiteness: snowmen, snowflakes and wintery scenes. However, in much of the rest of the world, snow is never even a possibility. There, the colors of the season have come to be “Santa” red and “Christmas Tree” green. Why is this?

Most of us quite naturally think that red derives from Santa’s outfit, and green from evergreen trees. While true to a certain extent, this is not entirely the case. These colors go back much further, to before there were even Christians. 

Today’s red and green winter holiday colors are generally attributed to the pre-Christian Celts, those people who occupied England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the coast of Brittany in France. The global reach of this color combo comes largely from the much later British and their empire which touched the far reaches of the earth. 

The land of the Celts is not a snowy place, it enjoys a maritime climate tempered by the warmish ocean current known as the Gulf Stream. It was a forested land of oaks and beeches and other deciduous trees. Like much of the northern European landscape in winter, it could appear pretty bare. However, the bright red berries and shiny evergreen leaves of native holly trees stood out. They suggested the continuance of life during the bleak winter months. Hollies thus became an important contribution to festive decorations during early Celtic wintery celebrations, especially solstice. As is so often the case, such customs were adopted by later cultures and belief systems, first, Christians in their churches, and later Victorians in their cards and decorations.

It was American advertising and marketing though which firmly established the red-green holiday color combo. In the early 1900’s, Coca Cola ads featured a jolly grandfatherly man with rosy cheeks and a thick white beard dressed in the soft drink brand’s signature red, with green accents (created by artist Haddon Sundblom). The ads were so successful and popular (variations repeated year after year) that this became the default image of Santa, and red and green became the color to market most everything during the Christmas and wintery holiday season.

Back to the Christmas salmon.

The holiday season is rich in taste traditions as well as prescribed color schemes. Today, thanks to the availability of fresh and flash frozen wild salmon (and the now ever present farmed knock-off), more and more people are including them in their Christmas dinners, sometimes as the centerpiece or more often as an additional option to the familiar and preferred roast beef or ham or turkey. 

Were salmon ever the main meat in Christmas dinners?

Fish are still at the center of some European holiday traditions, though it is carp rather than salmon. I experienced this first hand the winter that I spent Christmas in Prague with my daughter and her partner at the time. Prague is a river town, built along the banks of the Vltava. Like most northern European rivers, it had runs of Atlantic salmon historically, though overfishing and industrialization have made wild salmon essentially extinct. The Vltava does support a variety of freshwater fish; pike, perch, chub and salmon relatives such as brown trout and grayling. But the clear king of these is the carp, a languid bottom feeding omnivore that can get to be nearly 100 pounds (most are 5 to 30 pounds). Carp can be controversial. They are the national symbol of Bohemia, raised for over 500 years in fish ponds in the region, the most common farmed fish in the world. At the same time they have been so widely introduced in virtually every country in the world that they are often seen as pests and undesirable invasive species, often out competing native fish.   

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I began to notice fresh carp being sold along the streets and in markets. They were in buckets or some other kind of container, curiously being sold alive. I learned that people buy their Christmas dinner fish early so as to be sure that they will have one, take it home, and quite often keep in in their bath tub til Christmas Eve, when it is killed and prepared for the big meal. It should be noted that in many parts of the world, it is the Christmas Eve dinner that is at the center of the holiday celebrations, not the one on Christmas day.  

Wishing to experience a bit of local culture, I bought one of these big fish (maybe five to seven pounds) and took it home where it lived in the bathtub, seemingly satisfied with its circumstances, not smelling or creating any problems (though severely limiting the bathing situation). As it came closer to Christmas day, we talked more and more about how we might kill and prepare this formidable living creature. We did not give it a name (that surely would come if it had been with us longer), but it had become a presence in our lives. 

On Christmas Eve, we decided that we just couldn’t go ahead with eating it. Early the next morning, we carried it down to the river and released it. To our surprise, we were not alone. There were a few others doing the same thing. I was somewhat embarrassed by my lack of nerve and shunning an accepted local cultural tradition, but releasing it rather than eating it made all of us feel better, maybe even a bit self-righteous. The truth was that we were all unskilled at killing creatures to eat and I couldn’t imagine what to do with all the bones and guts and, most of all, the large head with those sad, accusing eyes. The locals would make a delicious soup out of the head, something I learned later. 

The Christmas carp continues to be a tradition in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. These are all heavily “eat meat daily” cultures, so it is a bit of a surprise that this river fish is chosen for their Christmas dinner. The custom apparently goes back to the Middle Ages where Catholics were required to “fast” during specific seasons, Advent, the time right before Christmas being one. Fasting meant not eating meat. Fish was the accepted alternative for Christmas Eve dinner, the last day of Advent. Celebrations, including gift giving were most common on the eve of Christmas rather than on the following day, where things were more relaxed and less structured. A Polish tradition (and in many other European countries) is for Santa to visit and distribute gifts, especially those for the children, on Christmas Eve.  

I later learned that most Czechs, Poles and Slovaks no longer give their bathtub over to a fish for a few days before Christmas (although there are still quite a few purists who adhere to the live fish tradition, and will likely continue to do so for some time). People now buy their fresh fish gutted and cleaned, or even frozen. And, they do not get them from the river. Carp have been raised in fish ponds throughout the region for over 500 years. Indeed, fish farming in the region is a highly perfected business. Thus, they are readily available, apparently tasty (I would not know) and affordable (much cheaper than the usual alternatives: duck, goose or turkey). Our fish was likely raised in a fish pond, not the Vltava River, and was probably quite surprised when it found itself in the unfamiliar (and less than pristine) river. I like to think it is still alive there, some twenty-five years later, getting bigger and bigger, maybe living to be a hundred or more, which is possible for a carp. 

People are beginning to substitute other fish for carp, including salmon (farm raised, probably from nearby Norway or Scotland) since it is now always available, affordable, easy to prepare, and tasty. After all, carp is a fatty, very bony bottom dwelling fish which many find challenging to prepare and eat. It is commonly breaded and fried or put into soups, not eaten in bone-free fillets like salmon. 

Other seafoods did often contribute to holiday dinners. Sea turtles for example were sometimes eaten in places such as the Caribbean, where the dinner items promoted by Europeans (especially “roas beef”) were not readily available or affordable. Norwegians are known for their lutefisk, a dried and salted cod or other whitefish, pickled in lye. In Finland, baked ham is the traditional Christmas dinner, but it is preceded by a fish-centered array of cold-cuts such as smoked salmon, pickled herring, fish roe, gravlax and lutefisk. And, further to the south, Italians, especially Sicilians, celebrate what is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa Dei Sette Pesci, or, more simply, La Vigilia) on Christmas Eve. While each family has its own specific traditional dishes, they are likely to include salt cod, clams, octopus, anchovies, sardines, and, if you’re fortunate, lobster.    

I can only conclude that historically salmon never played a central part of a traditional Christmas dinner. Until quite recently it was available mostly in cans or in a salted or dried form, not really competitive with a big turkey, ham or beef roast in the center of a generously and beautifully set out spread of supporting foods. If it was present, it would be a side dish of some kind. 

But, this may be changing. Fresh or “fresh frozen” salmon filets, either farmed or wild caught is now readily available during the holiday season. As more and more people become aware and concerned about the food they eat, salmon seems, to many, a good choice. So often, large family dinners feature more than one “meat” choice, reflecting the greater diversity of lifestyles and food preferences now so common.   

Here at Rocky Brook where I live, we don’t get sockeye (mainly because there are no large lakes up the Dosewallips River and Rocky Brook creek). We do observe late runs, with spawning in December into January, but it is coho (also called silver salmon) or chum. And of course, once they head upriver, they are protected (and begin to decline in quality). 

So, in my imagination, a Christmas salmon is a bright red and green spawning sockeye. 

In my backyard it is a bright red coho. 

Silver or Coho Spawning Pair

In my stomach it will definitely be wild and fresh or flash frozen to be almost as good as fresh.

Rocky Brook

December, 2021

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Use the comments form below to share your experiences with salmon as part of your Christmas or winter holiday eating experiences. And go the blog “What Is The Best Tasting Salmon” for some perspective on that question (and another chance to offer your opinion).

All illustrations by Dennis Lloyd Kuklok (copyright, 2021)

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