Heartbreak and hope: Larry visits his birthplace

Lonesome Larry visits his birthplace and spawning ground, Redfish lake.

The most interesting fish in the world comes from a beautiful and interesting place: Redfish Lake, located in the Sawtooth Valley of central Idaho. Lonesome Larry took a trip home earlier in July.

Redfish Lake, so named for the thousands of red sockeye salmon that once returned during the spawning season, is now a popular recreational area for boaters, campers and hikers. Since the completion of four dams on the Lower Snake river, the lake has seen few sockeye. In 1992, Lonesome Larry was the only sockeye salmon to return. After traveling 900 miles and 6,500 feet in elevation, the absence of a mate was a heartbreaking conclusion to such a stoic and heroic journey.

Like the Salmon River, Redfish Lake’s name no longer seems to fit, but there are still a few who recall how it used to be. A common story that Larry hears when he travels the state: “My father says he remembers when the lake became so full of salmon, it looked like you could walk across it on their backs.”

Thanks to good ocean conditions, federally mandated spill, pumped-up hatchery releases and further restoration measures pushed by Idaho Rivers United and other concerned stakeholders, sockeye have returned in greater numbers in recent years. However, they still have a long way to go before recovery is even part of the common vocabulary. Biologists estimate that 2,000 natural sockeye must return to the Sawtooth Valley for eight consecutive years before removal from the Endangered Species Act is even an option. That’s a long way from the 100 to 200 natural returns of the past couple years.

Larry visits Sunbeam Dam, which was breached in 1934 to allow for fish passage.

But there is hope for Larry and his sockeye friends. After his visit to Redfish lake, Larry dropped by Sunbeam Dam–a fish-killing barrier that was breached in 1934 and demonstrated the effectiveness of dam removal for salmon recovery.

Sunbeam was constructed on the Salmon River a few miles downstream of Stanley in 1910 to provide electricity for a nearby mining operation. Despite its role as a power dam, Sunbeam only generated electricity for one year and then sat for another 23 years as a virtually impenetrable barrier to sockeye and other migrating fish. In 1920, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game constructed a fish ladder over the dam, but the attempt at sockeye recovery yielded few returns.

By the 1930s, public outcry about the blocked fish populations led to action. In 1934, under circumstances that aren’t completely clear to historians, the obsolete dam was breached and sockeye began to repopulate the upper reaches of the Salmon River basin.

The events at Sunbeam signify that Idaho’s sockeye have the potential to recover if given a chance. It’s this little piece of hope that inspires Lonesome Larry to continue his travels–and to continue sharing his story.

Stay thirsty, Idahoans.

Lonesome Larry at Sunbeam Dam

Lonesome Larry examines the blown-up ramparts of Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River. Once a fish-killing barrier, Sunbeam is now a testament to how endangered fish could bounce back if other dams downstream were to be removed.

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