PAT NEAL: The first salmon

THE BLOOMING OF the salmonberries marks a change in the season. In the old days, these blossoms signaled the beginning of the spring Chinook run up the rivers.

It’s called the first salmon because they’re the first to swim upriver in the spring.

They do not spawn until late summer or fall. Surviving on their body fat, their flesh is rich and succulent.

Salmon oil is beneficial for heart health and brain function.

Just think how good this story would be if I could catch a springer. But I digress.

The salmon have kept people alive since they colonized our rivers after the ice age.

People believed salmon came from a big house at the bottom of the ocean. When it was time to run upriver, they put on salmon robes and voluntarily sacrificed their bodies for the benefit of man and everything on the river — from the tiniest insects to the tallest trees.

Then, the spirit of the salmon would return to their ocean house.

The first salmon caught in the spring was treated as a special guest.

The meat was shared.

The heart and bones of the first salmon were washed and returned to the river.

Care was taken so no dogs could get a piece of the first salmon.

On April 19, 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition dropped by a First Salmon Ceremony at the Dalles on the Columbia River.

Captain Clark observed, “The whole village was rejoicing today over having caught a single salmon, which was considered as the harbinger of vast quantities in four or five days. In order to hasten their arrival, the Indians, according to custom, dressed the fish and cut it into small pieces, one of which was given to every child in the village.”

It was believed as long as the salmon were treated with respect, the fish would run forever.

Instead, we began the commercial exploitation of salmon.

In 1834, Nathanial Wyeth hatched a scheme to ship barrels of salted salmon from the Columbia River to Hawaii and the East Coast.

James Swan described the salmon fishing in Shoalwater, now Willapa Bay, in June 1852, where he and his Chinook Indian friends caught a hundred Chinook salmon weighing up to 78 pounds with a single haul of a spruce-root seine net.

These fish, called “June Hogs” for their size and fat content, were doomed to extinction.

In 1867, the first of many salmon canneries was built on the Columbia River.

By 1878, cannery operators were facing a shortage of spring Chinook. They built the first fish hatchery.

By 1881, there were 30 canneries employing 2,500 to 3,000 mostly Scandinavian fisherman, while 4,000 Chinese cut the fish to fit into cans.

Every form of net was used to choke the Columbia from one bank to another, making it difficult for salmon to swim upriver. Fish wheels pumped 20,000 to 50,000 fish a day out of the river until Washington outlawed them in 1935.

By then, they were building the Grand Coulee Dam. It had no fish ladders, ending the salmon run into British Columbia.

Eventually, 60 dams were built in the Columbia Basin. Since then, the Columbia River has served as a road map to extinction on other rivers.

By the new millennium, the effect of an increasing human population with exploding pinniped and predatory bird populations has resulted in salmon going extinct in 40 percent of their historic range in the Pacific Northwest, where 19 populations of salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Proving the belief, if we disrespect the salmon, they will not run forever.


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