Sockeye, kokanee, chinook… confused? Larry is here to help.

Female Kokanee from Mores Creek. Photo by Anne Morrison.

The most interesting fish in the world found some interesting friends in Mores Creek on Saturday, August 18. The fish migrating upstream were smaller and far less traveled than our hero, Lonesome Larry, but sported the same signature red and crooked jaw as a sockeye salmon. They were kokanee,  the land-locked version of sockeye.

Although there is no taxonomic difference between sockeye and kokanee, they differ in migration and spawning behavior. Kokanee, whose name comes from a Native American word for “red fish,” naturally inhabit lakes where sockeye salmon currently or historically ranged, but spend their entire lives in freshwater. Sockeye spawn in lakes and migrate to the ocean, while kokanee spawn in tributary streams and migrate to a lake. Due to the relatively abundant food supply in the ocean, adult sockeye are usually between 20-30 inches long, while kokanee are only  8-20 inches long. Both sockeye and kokanee are known for their vibrant red color at spawning time and the males’ pronounced, crooked jaw.

There are two other salmon species native to Idaho: chinook (also known as King salmon) and coho (also known as silver salmon, now extinct in Idaho). Chinook are larger than sockeye and spawn in large rivers instead of lakes, while coho spawn in small streams and tributaries.  Both are carnivorous and have larger teeth than herbivorous sockeye and kokanee.

Like sockeye, chinook and coho migrate to the ocean and return inland via the Columbia river system to spawn and die, so these species became threatened by the construction of four extra dams on the Snake river in the 1970s. Idaho’s coho runs became extinct in 1986, shortly before Idaho’s chinook and sockeye became protected under the Endangered Species Act.

While meeting and greeting Idahoans, Lonesome Larry is often confused for his salmonid cousins, the steelhead and rainbow trout. Like anadromous salmon, steelhead migrate to the ocean and return inland to spawn. However, they do not always die after spawning and may spawn multiple times over several years. Rainbow trout are the exclusively fresh-water version of steelhead trout (like kokanee to sockeye).

All of the fish listed above are native to Idaho and serve an important role in its ecosystem, but the anadromous migratory fish (sockeye, chinook, coho, and steelhead) are especially important. These fish leave the streams of their birthplace as tiny smolts and later return from the sea to spawn and die as full-grown adults, so their bodies transfer a large amount of ocean nutrients to landlocked areas upstream. This feeds and fertilizes a plethora of other species, including plants, insects, birds, bears, coyotes, and other fish.

To see some of Idaho’s amazing migratory fish for yourself, try searching for kokanee within the next few days at any of the stops on Mores Creek along Highway 21. Also, come to the Sawtooth Salmon Festival in Stanley on August 25th. Guides will take you free of charge to the nearby Salmon river to see the miracle of spawning chinook salmon.

If you have trouble spotting fish in the water, do not despair–an incredibly interesting sockeye will be dancing on the lawn at the festival. His name is Lonesome Larry and he’s six feet tall–you can’t miss him.

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