PAT NEAL: The fish duck blues

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE spending the night along one of our rivers where it is still possible to experience one of the rarest things on Earth: silence.

Some would describe this silence as the sound of a dead river. The life on our rivers used to be anything but quiet.

Private Harry Fisher, of O’Neil’s 1890 Olympic Expedition, described a night along an Olympic Peninsula salmon stream: “Although warm and comfortable, I might have selected a camp in Barnum’s Menagerie so far as sleep was concerned. Great salmon thrashed in the water all night long. Wild animals which I could not see snapped the bushes all night long in search of fish. Every few yards was seen the remains of a fish where cougar, coon, otter or eagle had made a meal.”

Chances are Private Fisher could get his beauty sleep along our rivers these days. The animals, birds and varmints he described are only a small part of what you could call indicator species that illustrate the important role that salmon once played in our environment.

That was back when everything from the tiniest insects to the tallest trees were fed or fertilized by this vast exchange of energy from the ocean to the land and back again that the salmon represented.

Looking at a baby salmon it’s hard to believe that something not much bigger than a mosquito larva could have such a tremendous impact on everything from fish ducks to orcas, but they do.

Right about now, this year’s hatch of baby salmon is venturing out into the world.

Their parents had laid them as eggs in a gravel nest sometime last autumn.

The eggs developed into a larva-like creature called an alevin that fed on its own yolk sack.

Emerging from the gravel they are called parr or fry. With a little luck they will survive a period in freshwater and migrate downstream to the ocean as smolts.

With even more luck a small percentage of these young salmon will return to their home rivers where people call them everything from blue-backs to sore-backs.

Along the way the salmon feed the world through every stage of their lives.

It starts with the tiniest baby salmon that arrived on the scene, coincidentally, on the very day the baby fish ducks were hatched. Their mother had hatched them in tall cottonwood, so the first thing the baby fish ducks had to do was jump out of it.

They hit the ground running for the river where everything wants to eat them.

While the number of baby mergansers hatched by their mothers in a given year may not be an indication of the health of a salmon population on a salmon river, it will have to do until a better method comes along.

Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon to see a mother fish duck with a dozen chicks or more. This year they are averaging about four or five.

With the salmon gone, the animals that depended on them are going away too. The forest itself was diminished without the fertilization salmon carcasses represented.

From my own perspective, even worse than the fate of all the varmints, fish ducks and orcas put together was the effect of the elimination of the salmon on the humans who depended on them.

Many of the campgrounds, stores, resorts and businesses that depended on salmon have simply disappeared. Meanwhile, precious little is being done to restore the salmon.

Their extinction mirrors the disappearance of our traditions and the culture of salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest.

I hope someone studies the problem someday.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected]