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Tahoe’s Salmon Spawn

Kokanee salmon, Pope Baldwin Bike Path, Lake Tahoe (10/19/20) Clayton Peoples

Lake Tahoe is unquestionably beautiful, though its displays of fall foliage are limited to a few areas. What Tahoe lacks in wide swaths of bright color, as seen nearby in the Hope Valley, it has made up for with fall wildlife viewing opportunities … until this autumn.

Too many people came to see bear fish for spawning Kokanee salmon in Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek, causing the USDA Forest Service to issue Forest Order 19-20-10 that has outlawed “going into or being within the Taylor Creek Closure Area” including being on trails and National Forest roads within 400 feet of the creek, from Fallen Leaf Dam to Lake Tahoe.

That’s the prime area to see spawning salmon at Lake Tahoe. The stated reason for the closure was that too many people were climbing over fences and walking though the forest to take selfies as bear fished for salmon in the creek, thus creating damage and threatening the wildlife. The Forest Service also referenced trail maintenance and health safety issues as contributing factors though, fundamentally, too many people were acting inappropriately.

Fortunately, Kokanee can still be seen from the Pope Baldwin Bike Path that crosses the creek and from which the above photo was taken (legally). As such, the Pope Baldwin Bike Path is CaliforniaFallColor.com’s Hike/Bike of the Week. Please stay on the bike path.

Parking is found at a turnoff 100 yards north of the creek and a side street across from the turnoff. Walk back to the creek and the bridge that crosses it. Do not walk into the closed area or you can be fined.

During the spawn, Kokanee salmon are fluorescent red. They swim upstream from the lake to lay and fertilize eggs in tributaries beyond Fallen Leaf Lake. Their distinctive vermillion color makes them particularly vulnerable to predation by American black bear and eagles.

“The Kokanee, landlocked cousins of the sea-going Sockeye Salmon, were introduced to Lake Tahoe in 1944 by biologists working on the lake’s north shore.” a USDA Forest Service website states, “These predecessors of today’s inhabitants quickly adapted to the alpine environment, joining brown trout, rainbow trout and Mackinaw among the most prominent game fish in Lake Tahoe. However, no other species in Lake Tahoe offers such a spectacular show during their mating season.

“Each autumn, nature calls mature Kokanee to return to the streams from which they were hatched, select a mate, spawn and die.  As that time approaches, adult males develop a humped back and a heavy, hooked jaw, equipping them for the inevitable battles over both mates and territory, and both sexes turn from their usual silver/blue color to a brilliant red.  Then, en masse, the fish make one mad dash to their mating grounds, fighting their way up the shallow stream, displaying their colors to attract a mate, then battling to protect the small patch of gravel stream bed where they make their ‘redds’ or nests.

“Along the stream banks, the autumn aspens, willows and grasses will be as brilliant as the display in the creek below.  Almost as dramatic as the story of life and death being played out in the water are the colorful combinations of orange, gold and red as the vegetation prepares to shed their foliage in anticipation of winter,” states the Forest Service website.

A violation of the Forest Closure is punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both (16 U.S.C. § 551 and 18 U.S.C. § 3559, 3571, and 3581).