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)

Next Planned Blog “Emergence” expected on Feb. 1

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

Rocky Brook

Ruminations

by Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Blog Number 3

2015: The Odd Year of the Pinks

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). 

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

The Sweet Smell of Fresh Fruit and Dead Fish (Blog Number 7, October 2021)

Rocky Brook Ruminations

Blog Number 7

The Sweet Smell of Fresh Fruit and Dead Fish

I spotted large groupings of pinks (a.k.a. humpbacks or humpies) in late August in the Dosewallips River, right on schedule. I had waited two years for this event (they spawn here only in odd numbered years), wondering if the worrying trend I had observed would continue (since I had began to live here, there had been ten pink salmon years, half of which had no fish at all counted). This year’s run looked promising, though the extremely low level of the much smaller Rocky Brook made me wonder if there would be enough water for those that spawn in it to come up and lay eggs. 

I couldn’t stay to monitor this run though. I had to ferry up to Ketchikan in early September for a mixture of business and pleasure. 

In Alaska, I was thrilled to see Ketchikan Creek, around which Ketchikan was settled, filled with pinks. For almost two weeks I watched these fish cluster together, trying to avoid the fat and happy harbor seals pick one out to snack on, navigate the rushing rapids and falls (there is a fish ladder around the highest), pair-up and spawn in the gravel before becoming yet another carcass lying along the streambank or hanging in the salmonberry branches. 

All this while I wondered about what was happening back home on the Olympic Peninsula. Was there enough rain to trigger a Rocky Brook run?

When I finally arrived home at the beginning of the last week of September, it was nighttime, dark and raining. After checking the garden fence to make sure that the bears had not broken through to get to the ripe pears and apples, I went down to Rocky Brook. I really didn’t need the flashlight. The sound of splashing and churning told me what I needed to know; pinks were running up Rocky Brook, and there were lots of them. 

What a welcome home. 

The next morning I walked down to a sight I hadn’t seen in six years; fish in numbers which would rival any Alaska stream. They were everywhere, and by the sight of the dead ones along the shorelines, had been for some time. One can’t help but stand in awe when presented with wild creatures in such abundance. Especially during our time where we humans have smothered this richness and abundance, where in so many places it is only a fraction of what it once was. 

I never tire of watching spawning salmon.

At first I thought they were all pinks. Their size and shape and coloration indicated this. But a flash of bright red, just for a moment, told me that there had to be at least one coho. This made sense; hatchery raised coho stray up Rocky Brook about this time every year (the hatchery is on the Quilcene River, just to the north.)  

The next morning I was in the yurt, writing, when I heard what sounded like something big in the creek below. I got up to check, hoping to see a big black bear splashing about, trying to snap up a salmon in its mouth. It was a man in waders; Washington Fish and Wildlife Dept., counting fish.

I let him finish his count and get back to his pick-up before I biked up to ask for the numbers. He had counted 734 live pinks, 84 dead pinks and 6 coho. When I asked if the coho were hatchery, he said they were to fast and wary to be able to see if they had clipped adipose fins. He added that he was not familiar with Rocky Brook’s typical run history to know if coho should be present at this time. I have to say I was surprised at the count, not because of the large numbers, but because of the detail. I had watched him walking and didn’t know how he could come up with 734 and not 737. To me, there were just too many fish to count, at least to that level of specificity. Yet, I’m sure he has a methodology which is pretty accurate. 

Later that day, while watching the pinks in front of The Observatory, I spotted a large, dark coho darting amongst the pinks, looking confused at all those fish, not a one that looked or smelled like a coho and were taking up so much of the stream’s available spawning real estate. I was able to see the intact adipose fin clearly, suggesting it to be wild. At least it had not been raised in a hatchery, had not been clipped. It might be the offspring of a hatchery pairing in Rocky Brook in some previous year. I like to think of it as a wild fish, and will be looking for more in the coming days. Wild coho are always wanted, this is a perfect coho stream in many ways. 

Back to the Bears. I think the big run might have saved my pears and apples this year. Every fall the local bears walk around my eight ft. high garden fence, standing upright, testing it for weak spots where they might be able to get to the sweet, ripening fruit. Twice they have succeeded, once using an overhanging branch, once leaning on a corner post that had rotted out. Each time they had eaten everything, and knocked over whole trees in the process.  

After the first time, I began to check the fence every fall. As added security I do two things (bears are unpredictable and will do surprising things to get to fruit, they started digging under my neighbor’s fence to get to his fruit trees.) First I place wind chimes and bells on corner fence posts, so that when the bears lean on them, they emit a “surprise and scare” sound. Second, I play a radio at night, set to a talk show channel. These things have worked … so far. 

And the abundance of fish this year has undoubtedly also helped.

Finally, there is the smell.

When salmon come upstream in such numbers, they overwhelm the local ecosystem’s natural ability to deal with the carcasses. There is just too much biomass all at once. So dead fish pile up in the bottom of the creek and along the banks. Critters drag them into the forest. One finds them in surprising, unexpected places. There they rot, and smell.

A rotten fish in one’s refrigerator or trash can be quite strong, pretty unpleasant. However, hundreds of rotten fish out in the open air somehow do not smell as bad. To me, they almost have a sweet smell. 

Maybe I am just so happy to see so many fish return that I don’t acknowledge the oder. Maybe my sense of smell gets tempered. I recall in Ketchikan how one could not but notice the strong fish smell that permeated the air along Creek Street boardwalk, yet visitors off cruise ships stood there and happily took their pictures. I didn’t notice any holding their noses. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite fish-smell stories. Back when I was in University, some friends wanted to buy an old school bus and go on a cross country adventure in it. These were the days when young people did such things, inspired by Tom Wolf’s 1968 book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” describing the bus named “Further” carrying the “Merry Band of Pranksters” across the country. My friends found the perfect bus, great body, working engine, reasonable price. They were not quite ready to buy it though, and feared that somebody else would. So one of them (Elaine, a woman from Scotland who was quite resourceful and free thinking) bought a fish in the store, wrapped it in newspaper, and hid it in the middle of the bus. There it quickly began to emit a noticeable aroma. She figured that this would deter any other buyers (which it did). 

I never asked how long the smell lasted once they had the bus, or what she did to make it go away. 

As I write this, I can hear the splashing about of the hundreds of salmon right below me. This should go on for another couple of weeks. 

The sweet smell of dead fish will be around much longer.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, October, 2021

Copper River Salmon … The Best? (Blog Number 6, 2019)

Rocky Brook Ruminations

Copper River Salmon … The Best?

I’m reading the book Upstream by Langdon Cook. There is a whole chapter about Copper River Sockeye and Kings. They are a marketing phenomenon, touted as the best tasting salmon. The sockeye, because of their bright red flesh; kings of Chinook because of their great size. All the advertising makes one think that there is something special about the Copper River, something which makes these salmon worth the initially very high prices (over $40 per pound). 

alaskan friends, accustomed to salmon from all over the state, just smile when they hear the announcement of the first Copper River fish being shipped down to Seattle. Alaska Airlines has an entire plane (with a plane-sized salmon painted on its side) dedicated to hauling Alaskan salmon to markets south. To most Alaskans, there is no difference, fish caught on the Kenai or Bristol Bay or Admiralty Inlet all are as good as those from the Copper River. Indeed, some Alaskans prefer Kuskokwim River chums or Yukon River white Kings, or Clarence Strait coho. 

The success of the Copper River brand is due to an astute marketing strategy developed back in the early 1980’s. Before then, Copper River salmon was canned, or shipped in bulk to Japan at discounted prices. Fishermen and women in Cordova were not making much money, many considered getting out of fishing altogether. A few though, believed in the quality of their product. After all, Copper River fish were some of the first to spawn in Alaska, a factor which could be played up. And, they were rich in oils, since the journey upriver demanded it (salmon do not eat once they enter fresh water to spawn). And, the markets were changing; consumer demand for quality salmon was growing and some chefs were featuring it on their menus. 

Creating the “Copper River” brand was the result of three factors. First, Jon Rowley, a marketing whiz out of Seattle got key Seattle restauranteurs to buy and feature Copper River fish. Second, Cordovan fishermen changed their practices to maintain an extra high product quality (immediate bleeding and icing fish once caught in nets, and getting it to processing plants quickly). Finally, Alaska Airlines joined in by flying fish to Seattle and other markets, usually within 24 hours. Thus, consumers became accustomed to fresh fish, and began to pay more for it. 

And, the origin of the fish was noted at every possible turn (menu’s, fish markets, wholesale and retail outlets), such that people knew what a Copper River fish was. 

Today, fresh caught fish transported by air make it possible for people all over the country to know about and enjoy this product. Around May each year, people await this year’s catch, willing to pay the higher prices. And, supermarket chains such as Safeway and QFC always have highly discounted prices, making people think they are getting a really good deal on a “high end” product (which they are). 

This year (2019) the first Copper River sockeye and Chinook shipment (18, 000 pounds) from Cordova Alaska arrived to cameras and fanfare on May 20th at SeaTac Airport. 

Still, the most sophisticated processing and marketing techniques require wild fish, and there the news is not so upbeat. 

According to undercurrentnews.com, one of the best seafood information websites directed at the food industry, this year’s sockeye runs are projected to be 39% below their 10 year average. Twenty eighteen was the second worst year in history with only 44, 318 caught out of a rosy projection of 942,000 fish. 

Much of this decline is attributed to the “blob” effect. 

ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) is expecting strong pink and chum runs this year to compensate for the low numbers of sockeye and kings. 

I’ll water that people won’t be paying $40 per pound in the market for pinks and chums, though maybe people should be. Fresh wild salmon are a healthy bargain at any reasonable price. 

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, August, 2019

Salmon Eating Songbirds (Blog Number 5, 2017)

Rocky Brook Ruminations

Salmon Eating Songbirds

I’ve lived next to dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) for almost twenty years. They are year-round residents along Rocky Brook here on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. I see and hear them nearly every day. They stand on rocks, perusing the stream, bobbing or “dipping” up and down on their legs, and then plunging head first into the water. Initially I assumed that they mostly ate caddisfly larvae and other small invertebrates (bugs) which are common amongst stream bed rocks and gravels. 

Then, one January day I observed a dipper “working” in an area I knew to be a salmon redd, a place where eggs had been laid a month earlier. Clearly the bird was feeding on developing salmon eggs. This was not really that surprising; the eggs were just sitting there within the gravel, certainly some were easy to get to, and this was a world that the dipper knew well. 

I thus learned that dippers eat salmon eggs. Then last fall I learned something else. 

Rocky Brook has a small hydroelectric plant just upstream from me. It’s turbines are fed by a large water tank abut 800 feet above it. The tank is fed by a system of intakes buried in the stream bed, carrying water in 4 ft diameter pipes, first to the water tank, and then to the turbines. Since the watershed is relatively small, the plant only operates during the winter, completely shutting down during the dry, usually rainless months from June through October. To start the plant again each year, the operator flushes the storage tank, releasing water into the creek just above where I live.

This water has been sitting for months. It has sediment, algal growth and rusted iron from the tank and penstock pipes. When released, it is an opaque, reddish, mud slurry. Each release event clouds the creek for two to four hours. 

It was during this flushing that I noticed the dipper, right below my yurt. It was standing on a rock by the edge of the creek, diving into the thick muddy water, and coming up with a two inch long salmonid fry (most likely a coho or rainbow trout). Now this was a surprise for me.

After all, dippers do not seem to be adapted to catching fish. They do not gain speed and dive like a kingfisher. They do not have webbed feet and a serrated bill like mergansers. They are technically songbirds, related more to robins and wrens than to fish-eating waterfowl. 

But here, right before my eyes, was a dipper with a little fry in its beak. It couldn’t swallow it, the fry was half as big as its head. So it proceeded to shake it violently, drop it on the rocks, pick it up, shake it some more, and even beat it against a rock. I watched as the fish escaped, got into the water, and then was recaptured ( the fish likely stunned and disoriented). Eventually the little fish stopped fighting and remained motionless on a rock. The dipper picked it up and flew away, so I was unable to actually see how it swallowed the little fish, but I have to assume that it found a way. 

The key here is that the muddy creek water forced the fry to the margins where a dipper could capture one. I don’t think they would fare as well with fry in clear water. But it did alert me to the fact that dippers would eat little fish if given the opportunity, and had figured out how to do this under these unusual circumstances. 

A month later, the creek bottom was a thick carpet of leaves. I thought this would impair the dippers normal feeding, making it harder to find bugs. Not so. Dippers did their usual dance on a rock, dove completely under the surface and worked under the leaves. Eventually it would surface with a worm-like larvae, shake its head violently to stun the insect, and swallow. This was common feeding behavior. 

Dippers tend to be residents wherever they live, even in Alaska. When I was living in Homer, Alaska about ten years ago, I went out cross country skiing along the Anchor River. It was January, there was at least five feet of dry snow on the ground, air temperature in the twenties. Ski conditions were perfect. We followed the river as it was covered with snow and presumably ice below. We came to one spot where there was an opening, and we could hear the river flowing below. To my astonishment, a dipper appeared out of nowhere and dived into the hole. About a minute later it exited and headed off to I don’t know where. I thus learned that this little grey songbird somehow survived even Alaskan winters, staying active, finding food. Most likely it spent most of its time downstream, where the river emptied into the sea and there were more ice-free patches, but it also ventured upstream, looking for openings in the ice.

American dippers are only found along rivers in the western mountains from Alaska down into Mexico. An unlikely water bird at first glance they look like a short tailed songbird. Yet, they have some unique adaptations to their dependence on food right out of the rushing river or creek where they live.

First, their bones are solid, not hollow as in most songbirds. This makes it easier for them to dive. While they do not have webbed feet, they do have powerful wings which are used like flippers. They have a very dense plumage, and a very large preening gland for water-proofing their feathers. Underwater, they are covered by a thin, silvery film of air bubbles trapped in their feathers, a kind of insulation from the cold water. They have very long, sharp claws which aid in grasping rocks. They are able to change the curvature of the lenses in their eyes, allowing them to see clearly underwater. They have nasal flaps which prevent water from entering their nostrils. Dippers have especially high levels of hemoglobin in their blood, allowing them to store oxygen and remain underwater for 30 seconds or more. They are able to feed underwater even in freezing conditions (quite likely keeping a diving hole clear in rivers that freeze over in the northern part of their range).

During the spring, their territorial and mating songs are as rich and beautiful as any songbird. 

My favorite time to watch dippers is during the summer when the young are learning to feed for themselves. Parent birds appear to feed their young for quite some time; the young will be almost as large as the parents, yet remain rooted to a rock, chirping loudly for food, refusing to dive into the water. The parent will dive and bring a juicy morsel and give it to the waiting offspring rooted to the rock. This results in a moment of quiet, before the loud begging begins again.

The chattering of the family can be quite loud and raucous (their voices are high pitched so as to be heard above the usual roar of the stream), and the young seem to need a considerable amount of time and coaxing to actually dive into the water and learn how to find food. That first plunge must be an amazing experience, opening up a whole new world.  

Whenever you find yourselves along a mountain stream, stop a moment and watch the rocks in the water. Chances are quite high that eventually a dipper will appear, bob up and down on the rock, and surprise you by diving right into the rushing water. 

And, listen for its song.  

How Many Salmon Does A River Otter Eat? (Blog Number 4, October 2018)

How Many Salmon Does A River Otter Eat?

October 2018, Rocky Brook

Early October, time to watch for spawning activity. The water level has been too low to encourage fish passage up Rocky Brook from the larger Dosewallips River. Still, at night I heard splashing below me (the yurt where I sleep is perched right above Rocky Brook). In the morning I noticed small “clearings” in the tiny gravel and sand. This indicated some kind of spawning activity. They could have been by trout (rainbow or cutthroat) or possibly sculpins. These resident fish tend to spawn under protection of darkness, and at less predictable times. Adult salmon prefer much larger gravel for carving out redds in which to deposit eggs. These might have been made by hatchery fish, as they tend to behave somewhat differently than the wild fish, possibly testing sites. In any case, I could not find the fish responsible for this activity. 

Then, at midday during the second week of October, I heard a great splashing. There, right below me in the deep pool under the yurt deck, I saw an otter. Then another, and to my surprise, three more. It must have been a complete family. 

I observed the two largest otters surface, each wrestling with its own fish. They began to eat, starting with the head and working down from there. These fish were almost as big as the otters, too big to have been in Rocky Brook at such a low water level. One looked like a five or six pounder, the other slightly smaller. No spawning colors. The Fish and Game biologist who walks Rocky Brook weekly to count fish and redds said that he had seen hatchery coho without spawning colors in the larger Dosewallips, so these might have been coho. 

The other otters joined in, the little family feeding, chattering, grooming and sitting on rocks. This went on for an hour. I surmised that the otters had herded the fish up Rocky Brook where it was much easier to trap them, especially by a coordinated group of experienced hunters. I pay attention to the world around me, I’m pretty sure I would have noticed such large fish.

Later that afternoon the otters were still there; they were eating two more smaller fish. Eventually they left, leaving half eaten carcasses. These were gone by morning, I’m not sure if the otters or some other critter got them. 

Three days later the otters were back. They had two more fish. These were bright red, clearly spawning coho. I could see the clipped fin, indicating that they were hatchery fish, most likely from the nearby Quilcene National Fish Hatchery, located within an adjacent watershed about ten miles away. After the otters left, I watched a smallish coho female. It had been building a nest, most likely paired with one of the fish that the otters had eaten. Now it wandered around aimlessly, swimming from redd site to nearby pools in a wide circle. The next morning, she was gone too. 

By mid October, Rocky Brook was quiet again, save for the resident trout fry. These are being eaten, one by one, by a visiting kingfisher. Luckily there are lots of them and only one bird.

During the third week of the month, I was talking with the Fish and Game biologist during his weekly walk. When I told him about the otters, he said it answered one question he was having. The previous week he had counted eleven redds above me, between the bridge and Rocky Brook Falls, but could not find a single fish (and he is an expert at flushing out and spotting fish). He didn’t doubt that the otters were responsible. 

Somehow since these are hatchery and not wild fish, I feel less animosity towards the otters. Its the wild fish that I really want to see survive (at least long enough to spawn), and the wild fish runs for the last two years have been dismal. But, hatchery fish are better than no fish. And while raised in the nearby hatchery, they do carry genes from the wild population in the Quilcene River. Who knows, these fish might eventually learn to survive and return to Rocky Brook year after year, becoming successful resident salmon, eventually mixing with the native coho. 

I looked up river otters in various books that I have, wondering how voracious they are. A frequently cited study in Alaska (1985) determined (through scat analysis) that at least 3300 juvenile salmonids were eaten by 2 adult and 2 young over a six week period. If you do the math, it ends up being almost 20 fish per day per otter. Juveniles in freshwater would have been small, less than six inches. 

A 1990 study in Scotland of otter predation on Atlantic salmon concluded that during spawning season, otters consumed on average one salmon per night, meeting their daily food requirement with this single fish.

And the family of five I observed in Rocky Brook ate four adult fish in one afternoon. This seems about normal, and they didn’t seem to waste anything, except for maybe the  bony tail.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, October, 2018 

Salmon In The Garden (Blog Number 2, October 2015)

Rocky Brook

Ruminations

Salmon  In The Garden

As an organic gardener with a keen interest in wild Pacific salmon it seemed natural that I would try to find ways to link the two. Using fish as a garden fertilizer has a long, though probably quite smelly history. Stories abound of Native Americans planting a small fish such as a herring with every corn or bean seed. I can’t imagine doing it though without also attracting bears, raccoons, gulls, ravens and countless other critters. I picture them displacing seeds and upending plants as they unearth the irresistible ripe fish. Still, because fish are such a rich source of nitrogen and phosphorus the results must have convinced them that this was worth the effort. 

Even though I live right next to two anadromous rivers, wild fish are protected. Resident wildlife do a great job of consuming and scattering the spawned out salmon. I am not about to compete with or deprive them. So, buying a commercially produced fish fertilizer seemed like the answer. The obvious choice was a product called “Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. It is organic, natural and readily available; even neighboring Quilcene’s small hardware store carried it. With a name like Alaska, it had to be from wild fish, most likely salmon I thought.

“Ignorance is bliss” as they say. I could have continued to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer, imagining that wild salmon waste was nurturing my lettuces, broccoli, squash and tomato plants. However, a more careful examination of the label gave me reason to pause and question my assumptions. First, in small print it states that “Alaska” is the brand name of Central Garden and Pet Company; it did not necessarily refer to the place. Right below this, in larger print, it says it is “guaranteed” by Lilly Miller Brands of Georgia. ClearIy I needed to dig deeper.

As it turns out, the commonly available product sold as “Alaska Fish Fertilizer” has nothing to do with Alaska nor salmon. It took a bit of searching but I eventually discovered an article by Bill Ginn, “Marketing Coordinator, Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. If you are interested, the complete article is posted on the Rainy Side Gardeners website (rainyside.com/resources/fishfert.html). Here are the main things I learned from it. 

The “fish” in Alaska Fish Fertilizer is virtually all menhaden (small, bony, oily and abundant, harvested in the Atlantic and Caribbean). The menhaden go through a process which separates the very valuable oil (which has the most protein and is used to make fish emulsion fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer) from the less valuable solids (which are made into fish meal, animal feeds and other products). 

Processed menhadden fish oil is shipped across the country by rail to Renton, Washington where it is further processed (phosphoric acid added to keep pH low, chemicals to control odors), bottled and distributed to retail stores all over the country.

Salmon, as cannery waste, was part of the recipe fifty years ago when this product was first developed, some of it actually coming from Alaska. This is no longer the case because of high shipping costs, changes in the Alaskan fishing and processing industry, and the fact that it is “VERY” hard to mask the smell of salmon waste. 

While Alaska Fish Fertilizer is not from Alaska, it is “natural” and “organic” (the chemicals added to control pH and odors make up less than 1% of the product and thus it meets organic labeling standards).

Oil based fish fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 5-1-1 or 5-2-2. Other products have lower ratios and are not organic because they use cheaper materials and processes as well as more than 1% of additional inputs. These products are usually called “amended fish emulsion” or “enzymatic fish emulsion”.

What to do? Is it possible to make the connection between your garden and wild salmon? The answer is a qualified yes. 

While there are numerous fish based fertilizers out there, only three were promising with respect to salmon content. Alaska Fish Bone Fertilizer made in Palmer Alaska is a good product coming from the right place. However, it uses white cod as its base. I would assume it is cod from Alaskan waters, though their website did not state this. 

“Alaska Salmon Fertilizer”, produced by a “team” of people based in Anchorage seemed like a good option. They promote it as “alive” meaning that “beneficial” bacterium (lactobacillus) are added. They have a facebook page (facebook.com/alaskasalmonfertilizer) and a website under development as of this writing. It was not clear how much their product costs nor how to get it. I would guess that the shipping cost alone would make it quite expensive. And the addition of the bacteria makes me wonder why it is added. 

Finally, there is Alaska Bounty Farm in Naknek (on Bristol Bay, North America’s greatest sockeye salmon producing area). They are located right across from the Red Salmon Cannery and thus have easy access to lots of fish and fish byproducts, mostly salmon. They offer four “Alaska fisheries” based products (Liquid Fish Hydrolysate, Fish Bone Compost, Salmon Bone Meal, and Enriched Peat Moss). They have a phone number (520-780-7545) where one can place an order, but again, the shipping costs must be significant. If you are interested, go to their website http://www.alaskabounty.com. 

On the website http://www.salmonproject.org I discovered a page dedicated to old time Alaskan’s gardening advice. It listed local garden clubs and groups throughout the state, where to find gardening know-how for Alaska’s unique climate and soil conditions. Their wisdom emphasized one important point: make do with what was locally available. They usually did not have the option of buying inputs ordered by phone and shipped incredible distances.

So, for me, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, I continue to look for a somewhat local product which is salmon based for my garden. In the meantime, I continue to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer as the most logical alternative, after all, while the fish may come from the other side of the continent, the product itself comes from relatively nearby. 

And, I welcome suggestions from readers … not everything is on the internet … there just might be exactly what I am looking for nearby, maybe even in Quilcene.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Real Rivers Have Curves (Blog Number 1, Spring 2015)

Rocky Brook Ruminations

Real Rivers Have Curves

I live right next to two rivers. One is the Dosewallips (locals just call it “the Dosey”). It is the only river flowing out of the east side of the Olympic mountains with glacial headwaters. The other is much smaller, somewhere between a stream and a creek. It is called Rocky Brook. Both are anadromous, they support wild salmon populations. 

Living right above the floodplain of these two dynamic natural wonders has made me think about the proverbial “hundred year flood”. It was a term I first learned about at university, studying hydrology and landforms. A 100 year flood is a flood event that has a 1% probability of occurring in a given year. It is also called the 1% flood. These areas can be mapped, creating the “100 year floodplain”, important for building permits, regulations and insurance. Such flood events are expected to happen infrequently, more on a geologic timescale than a human life span.

In looking at my part of the Dosewallips and Rocky Brook landscape, the wide, flat area where the river could rise up to is pretty clear. The question always was not if, but when. This winter I experienced the when. I don’t know if this was the proverbial hundred year flood, maybe the concept needs to be reevaluated with our changing climate and weather patterns. It certainly resulted in the highest water levels I and everyone I talked to around here had seen. 

The reach of Rocky Brook I live by is pretty short, about half a mile. Its upper boundary is defined by a sheer cliff creating 225 ft. Rocky Brook Falls, a spectacular piece of natural architecture. From the falls it has two fairly straight runs; one about a quarter mile through the canyon, due south past the bridge, and then a sharp turn east for another quarter mile where it meets the much larger Dosewallips River. This second reach, from the bridge to the Dosey is my domain. It’s nearly straight course was due to the previous landlord, a logging company owner with access to lots of heavy equipment. He thought that one day this site could be developed into a popular summer RV park and wanted things orderly and predictable. 

The winter of 2015’s back-to-back flood events left this lower stretch changed. Rocky Brook reclaimed an earlier channel and added a beautiful sinuous curve to a parallel existing channel. Instead of one stream, there are now two. Both should be good salmon habitat if there is enough water to maintain them during the critical dry summer months. The new channel (which is really the old original channel before logger landscaping decided otherwise) has excellent gravel size for fish spawning. 

The other, more sinuous reach now has a series of deeper pools where little coho salmon like to hide out. Textbooks say that rivers curve to “release” some of their flooding energy, carving out banks and deep pools on the outside of the curve and creating shallow areas with little beaches on the inside of the curve. This is their natural form. Look at a map of most rivers and you will see some incredible backing and forthing, sometimes almost forming a nearly complete circle. 

The Dosewallips River did the same thing, only on a much grander scale. It too had a pretty straight alignment along my property. It too, added cut banks and rocky beaches as it took on a more sinuous path. It too is becoming more diverse, diversity which translates into good fish habitat.

Of course, all that flooding must have been a challenge for all the alevins (tiny salmon that had just emerged from eggs and were living within the gravel) as well as the year-old salmon fry. I can only imagine how they coped with the increased currents, rolling rocks, and water choked with silt, sand and debris. I’m sure they found little back wash and slack water areas to hunker down in and ride out the storm. Some of the old spawning and hanging out areas are gone, but new ones were created. This is how nature works when we leave her alone. 

All in all, the whole landscape looks a bit raw and unruly. But it also feels renewed, more natural, wilder. And, there is something about the beauty of a curve which is quite pleasing to the eye. My eyes are taking notice. 

Rocky Brook, Spring 2015