Redfish Lake is one of Idaho’s crown jewels, though it used to be more colorful. For thousands of years, sockeye salmon migrated 900 miles and 6,550 vertical feet from the Pacific Ocean in numbers so plentiful that their bright red coloration gave Redfish Lake its English name. They enriched the northwestern coasts of what are now the U.S. and Canada, and became a keystone species there.
But commercial fishing, pollution, logging, and dams all led to the decline of the sockeye. Once, an estimated 150,000 salmon traveled to Redfish Lake in the Sawtooths annually, and in less than 200 years, that number was reduced to 23 returns throughout the 1990s.
In 1992, only one sockeye salmon made it to the Sawtooths, and a local hatchery worker’s daughter named him Lonesome Larry. His species had been put on the Endangered Species List the year before — where it remains — which helped create a symbol out of Lonesome Larry. After Larry’s death, then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus had him stuffed and put on display in his office, as the state increased work to use Idaho hatcheries as insurance against extinction.
Sockeye have certainly rebounded to an extent. Returns number in the hundreds most years, but concrete dams and their warm reservoirs still prove catastrophic for the sockeye and other anadromous (migrating between salt and freshwater) species. Those temperatures will only increase.
2014 remains the sockeye’s banner year in recent history, when 1,516 salmon returned to the Sawtooths. But, in a showing of how far we have pushed the resilient species, a heat wave wiped out a vast majority of the Columbia River’s salmon in 2015, in a year that looked to build on the previous season’s successes.
The Lower Granite dam in eastern Washington is one of four dams that salmon advocates say must be removed for sockeye salmon to survive. (Getty)
This Year’s Stats
We don’t have an accurate account of returns yet for this year (they should be coming in the next couple of weeks), but the first sockeye was trapped on July 26 near Stanley. At that time, 1,295 sockeye had made it to Lower Granite Dam outside Lewiston, which was heralded as a “fantastic” rebound from dismal numbers the year before.
However, only a few hundred more sockeye made it to Lower Granite in August. The last dam count brought the total to 1,556, down from 2,087 last year. Still, 1,556 is more than 2020 and 2021 combined, and the highest count since 2014. But anadromous fish won’t just spawn anywhere — they either are trapped and spawned, make it to their spawning waters, or die trying.