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For the price of a tank of gasoline you can take the whole family to experience a true circle of life phenomenon. Autumn marks the transition from summer to winter and for Kokanee salmon the beginning of their most important and final journey.
One of the nearest and handicap accessible Kokanee salmon spawning viewing areas to Rio Blanco County is in neighboring Utah at Sheep Creek, a tributary to Flaming Gorge Reservoir. On Saturday, Sept. 14 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the first bridge in the Sheep Creek Geological Loop, just off Highway 44 in Ashley National Forest, there will be a viewing event hosted by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). Sheep Creek is located about six miles south of Manila, Utah and 55 miles north of Vernal.
The typical life cycle of the Kokanee is similar to that of other salmon. The landlocked version of the sockeye salmon, the Kokanee are born in a stream and migrate to a lake, in this case Flaming Gorge Reservoir, where they spend most of their adult lives.
Kokanee typically live for 3-7 years in a lake before heading back to their spawning grounds to spawn and die. The female Kokanee creates a nest called a redd. She will lay around 1,000 eggs, depending on food availability. Eggs hatch within 110 days, and the juveniles swim out to the lake.
Although smaller than sockeyes, Kokanees fight with the same powerful ferocity as their seagoing siblings. Until they spawn, kokanees are mostly silver, with a dark blue or silver back. There are small spots along the back and the tail. Spawning fish undergo a remarkable transformation, as the body turns bright red and the head a dark green. Male Kokanees also develop a pronounced hump on the back and a fierce-looking hooked kype or jaw, a tool that they use to fight other males during the spawn.
Spectators of this special event should look for the watchable wildlife signs that will be posted along the highway. You should be able to see the signs, no matter which direction you’re traveling on Highway 44. Biologists expect visitors to see quite a few Kokanee in their bright-red spawning colors, as well as some other wildlife in the area. DWR biologists will be available at the event to answer questions about the salmon and their behavior.
It’s also a great time of year to enjoy the auto tour along the Sheep Creek Geological Loop, as well as stop by the Red Canyon Visitor Center.
“Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, migrating songbirds, squirrels and a variety of other wildlife have shown up during this event in past years,” Tonya Kieffer-Selby, regional conservation outreach manager for the DWR, said. “If you have a pair of binoculars, a camera or a spotting scope, make sure to bring it with you.” If you can’t make it to the viewing event on Sept. 14, the Kokanee spawn can easily linger into mid-October depending on weather and water temperatures.
By Roxie Fromang
Special to the Herald Times