PAT NEAL: Salmon’s gift to the future

MAYBE YOU’VE HAD one of those days.

You wake up on an autumn morning and everything hurts. Nothing seems to move right.

You feel like the frantic pace of the world is just too fast and you’re being swept downstream tail first, no matter how hard you’re trying to swim up the river.

You could be spawned out.

That’s what we call salmon that have come up the river from the ocean and fertilized their eggs in a gravel nest despite a myriad of predators, parasites and varmints that wanted to eat them through every stage of their migration to the Gulf of Alaska and back.

Then they die.

While that might sound depressing to some, being a spawn-out isn’t something to be ashamed of anymore.

In fact, even some of the best minds of the best available science have figured out that the bio-mass represented by the spawned-out salmon carcasses is the single most important element in our ecosystem besides water.

This is the time of year to look for spawned-out salmon on our rivers.

Locating the rotting carcasses of spawn-outs is not difficult if there are any.

Just follow your nose.

If the pure forest air suddenly smells horrible, you’re close to a spawn-out.

Observing spawning salmon can be a nature experience not unlike birdwatching only you’re looking in the water, duh.

That’s when it is possible to see the fish that got away.

These are the big salmon that everyone dreamed of catching in the saltwater last summer but they didn’t.

These fish have gone through an amazing transformation.

When they came into the river from the ocean, they had perfectly snow-white bellies and deep blue backs.

It’s a color scheme that makes them very hard to see in the ocean from above or below.

Upon entering the river, they stop feeding.

The large silver scales the salmon wore in the ocean fall off in freshwater.

The fish goes through a weird transformation into shades of green, red, black and brown.

These spawning colors serve to camouflage the salmon among the rocks on the bed of the river and attract a mate, which is the whole point of the exercise.

Once the salmon pair up, they dig a nest in the gravel called a redd.

These can be huge, as large as a bed of a pickup truck for a pair of big king salmon.

Once the salmon have spawned, one might hang around the redd to guard it and that is usually a male.

By now the salmon is really ugly.

The fins are rotting off. Fungus grows on open sores and over blind eyes.

Still, the fish keep swimming aimlessly until a certain moment where they just turn belly up.

Their job is done but their life goes on. There are a hundred and some-odd bugs, birds, animals and plants that feed on spawned-out salmon carcasses.

Bears usually get the first pick. Native Americans called the bear the mother of all creatures because they caught way more salmon than they could eat so everyone shared in the catch.

The bathroom habits of bears in the woods being what they are fertilized the trees.

High water washes spawned-out carcasses all through the woods along the river bottoms.

The early pioneers used spawned-out salmon to fertilize their gardens. That’s illegal now.

We need every spawned-out salmon we can get back on our rivers to get them to stink again like the good old days.

Maybe we can all learn something from spawnouts and their gift to future generations.

Sometimes it’s OK to be spawned out.

_________

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 patneal wildlife@gmail.com.

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