PAT NEAL: Bring back the spawners

IT WAS AN early morning on the river. I was launching a boat in the dark.

This is all part of a fishing guide’s client-hazing ritual where we get them up in the middle of the night and drive around in circles in the dark until the tourist loses any sense of direction, time and space, which can allow them to relax, settle back and enjoy the natural beauty of the rainforest rivers of the Olympic Peninsula.

Floating these rivers in the dark is a nature experience that can awaken the senses. There are the sounds of the river and the forest surrounding it, and shadowy forms of rocks and trees emerge in the twilight.

Then there is the aroma of death warmed over causing questions to be asked.

Was it my raincoat left in a dry bag with a pocket full of sand shrimp I was saving for someday? Was it the bait cooler that must have been salvaged from the ark or was it my tackle box?

I thought something died in there but I was afraid to look.

No, the smell was worse than all of those things put together.

Daylight revealed the source of this savage aroma to be the carcass of a spawned-out salmon lodged in some tree branches now 8 or 10 feet above the river.

I told the tourists this salmon in the tree was evidence of the fighting ability of our native fish. How I hooked that fish the week before and it fought so hard we thought it was going to take off running through the brush. The fish jumped that far up into the tree and got stuck there instead.

Even the tourists didn’t believe that one but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

The real story of how the fish got up in the trees is as old as the salmon themselves.

Salmon die after they spawn. Since the melting of the continental ice sheet some 15,000 years ago allowed the salmon to colonize and thrive in our rivers the runs of spawning salmon have represented an unbroken cycle of life down the rivers to the ocean and back up the rivers again.

Watching the salmon deteriorate from an ocean fish with a blue back and a white belly to a spawning salmon in fresh water is to witness one of the most grotesque transformations in nature.

The salmon drop their silver ocean scales on entering fresh water. Their skin thickens and changes to various colors of green, black and red. Their muscles degenerate. They grow teeth.

Toward the end of spawning, their skin starts to rot and grow fungus.

Eventually their internal organs shut down leaving a lifeless, gelatinous pack of protein that feeds the river, forest and all the birds, bugs and varmints that inhabit our wild lands.

Usually it is the bears that get the first pick of the spawned-out salmon, even if the fish isn’t entirely dead yet.

Bears fertilize the trees by scattering the fish across the forest floor for other creatures to enjoy. High water flushes the spawn-outs up into tree limbs and out across the flooded bottomlands hundreds of yards from the normal stream channel.

Nowadays these dead, spawned out fish have become a rarity.

Our futile attempts at salmon restoration have ignored the single most important element of our ecosystem next to water — spawned-out salmon.

While managing our fisheries for a maximum sustained harvest we’ve ignored the importance of dead spawners and destroyed a key function of the ecosystem before we even understood how it worked.

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

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