A closer look at a female pink salmon discovered at Dryden Dam, showing the classic marks and coloring of her species. Photo by Julia Pinnix/USFWS
A closer look at a female pink salmon discovered at Dryden Dam, showing the classic marks and coloring of her species. Photo by Julia Pinnix/USFWS

Fish Tales: Salmon Surprise at Dryden Dam on the Wenatchee River

By Julia Pinnix, visitor services manager at Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery Complex in Washington.

“We pulled a pink salmon out of the trap at Dryden yesterday,” Dustin Wagner told me late this summer.

Dustin works for Yakama Nation Fisheries, which was trapping coho salmon for spawning at Dryden Dam on the Wenatchee River, just a few miles downriver from Leavenworth, Wash. I knew what he told me was accurate, but it was completely astonishing.

Barry Hodges holds a male pink, or humpback, salmon.Photo by Dustin Wagner/Yakama Nation Fisheries
Barry Hodges holds a male pink, or humpback, salmon. Photo by Dustin Wagner/Yakama Nation Fisheries

Pink salmon, also called humpback salmon for the huge hump that forms on males during spawning season, are extinct in the Columbia River, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission doesn’t mention pinks being found in the Columbia River at all. But in a thoroughly researched document put together by Richard Hart on the fishing rights associated with the Wenatchapam Fishery Reservation, I read that pink salmon were found all the way up to Icicle Creek in what is today Leavenworth.

Pinks are more typically found near the coast, unlike their bigger cousins, the Chinook salmon. But finding one more than 500 river miles from the coast is unusual. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game states that pinks seldom go more than 40 miles upstream. But in big river systems they can go farther: as much as 250 miles upstream on the Mulchatna River, for instance.

In 2011, the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported a record-setting migration of more than 1,500 pink salmon past Bonneville Dam. The article states, “Only six times on a record dating back to 1938 has the pink count at Bonneville totaled more than 100.” Pink salmon in the upper reaches of the Columbia River Basin are newsworthy.

Dustin Wagner holds a tag detector while Barry Hodges displays a female pink salmon from the trap inside Dryden Dam. Fish are removed by hand from the trap daily, allowing individual fish to be recorded and either collected for broodstock or sent on its way. Photo by Julia Pinnix/USFWS
Dustin Wagner holds a tag detector while Barry Hodges displays a female pink salmon from the trap inside Dryden Dam. Fish are removed by hand from the trap daily, allowing individual fish to be recorded and either collected for broodstock or sent on its way. Photo by Julia Pinnix/USFWS

All salmon stray to some extent. That is, a percentage of returning salmon don’t go back home to where they started their lives. This allows salmon to colonize other rivers and streams, which is a natural way of ensuring a disaster in one stream doesn’t spell the end for an entire population.

But that doesn’t mean an individual fish straying to another location is going to meet with success. There must be other fish of the same species who have also strayed, and the habitat has to be right. Pink salmon prefer gravel without a lot of fine material mixed in. In fact, the act of spawning, which churns up gravel as the salmon digs in with its tail to make a redd (nest), removes fine sediment. So, in a sense, salmon create the habitat best for their eggs when they return year after year to dig in the same area. Landing in a different spot is a bigger risk.

Competition for good habitat can also be tough. Chinook salmon can weigh 30 pounds or more. The average pink weighs about 8 pounds. The bigger the female, the more likely she is to get the spot she wants for her redd. It makes sense, if you’re a smaller species, to stick to habitat other salmon might not care for, like estuaries and streams close to the coast.

An underwater view of spawning pink salmon shows the extreme hump that forms on the backs of males. Photo by Katrina Mueller/USFWS
An underwater view of spawning pink salmon in Alaska shows the extreme hump that forms on the backs of males. Photo by Katrina Mueller/USFWS

Pinks are a species that thrives in the north. They are scarce south of Washington State, but abundant in Alaskan waters. Like other species of salmon, they are tough and resilient — and evidently capable of traveling hundreds of miles upstream, even if they usually don’t. That’s what makes fish so fascinating: they can still surprise experienced folks like Dustin, who has worked with them for many years. I don’t know if this particular pink will find a mate, but I’m cheering him on.

And even more so since I joined the Yakama Nation Fisheries team at the trap at Dryden Dam two weeks later. Another pink salmon was pulled out! For foreman Mike Whitefoot, it was only the third pink salmon he’s seen so far upstream in seven years of working here. This one was a female. She was gently released upstream of the dam, all of us hoping she’ll find that male and set the stage for future astonishment.

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Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

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Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.

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