His fish story reads like an action-packed thriller. Except it’s true. At a time when all hope seemed lost, he hatched free — a wild baby salmon engineered by Mother Nature to battle the most epic underwater terrain on earth. This is the odyssey and love story of Lonesome Larry — an Idaho-bred superhero, a dashing sockeye salmon from the Sawtooths.
Born Into Danger…
In 1988, in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains in the heart of Idaho, Larry was born. As a sockeye salmon, the cold, clear waters of the Sawtooth Valley had long been ancient breeding grounds for his wild kind. Close to 100,000 sockeye once returned here to spawn each year. Redfish Lake even takes its name from the sea of crimson the shores would turn from the bold-colored backs of mating salmon.
But by the time Larry was born the days of glory were gone. The future for these fish looked bleak. By the late-1970s, due to dams downstream and other degradations, the number of sockeye returning to the Sawtooths dropped to dozens, and to single digits in the 80s and 90s. In 1991, sockeye salmon were officially listed as an endangered species.
Larry hatched into a brave new world of dams and dangers where few survive. Would this single young fish have the strength to save his species?
The Saga Unfolds Downstream…
When people think of salmon, most envision big fish braving the upstream battle through frothy rapids. But the real lethal dangers lurk downstream, where a vast majority of vulnerable baby salmon perish on their initial migration to the ocean.
Larry spent a year in his native Idaho waters, growing to a few inches in size. Then one day, this brave young fish received a mysterious internal signal that the time had come to depart for the sea. So Larry, like hundreds of others in his generation, began to float backwards down 900 miles over the course of three rivers, losing 6,500 feet of elevation on his way to the Pacific Ocean.
In the process of this flush to the sea, his body began to change. This was no ordinary adolescence, but an awkward phase unique to his anadromous sensibilities. Salmon traveling to the sea undergo dramatic changes, rapidly shifting from freshwater adventurers to saltwater survivalists. Their backs turn blue, their sides silver, a transition that gives them the nickname “bluebacks.” Their gills and kidneys modify to survive and thrive in saltwater. If they don’t make it to the ocean in time, they could suffocate.
This daring backward float begins in Redfish Lake, then moves to the Salmon River and the Snake, and finally drains into the mighty Columbia. It’s a journey that once took a few weeks. But, after construction of eight formidable dams that plugged this natural salmon freeway, the trip takes young salmon a month or more, with a gauntlet of death-defying hazards along the way.
Larry and other small smolts faced deadly spinning turbines and dramatic pressure changes through each of the eight massive dams — four on the lower Snake and four on the Columbia. Each dam-made reservoir wreaked its own havoc in a brutal but different way. Stilled currents and warm water caused young salmon to lose their way, making them easy prey for predatory birds and fish that thrive in reservoirs.
In recent years fish like Larry are shipped around dams in cargo barges, but this unnatural trick has problems of its own. Barging baby fish can spread diseases and inflict traumatic, deadly injuries. Court-ordered spill programs and good snowpacks aid the seaward salmon some years, but for the most part these tiny fish must fend for themselves in unnatural terrain, meeting untimely ends. For the small percentage of smolts like Larry who actually arrive at the ocean alive, the real adventure has just begun.
The Ocean Odyssey…
Biologists estimate that Larry may have spent three years in the Pacific. Most sockeye return to their home waters after only two. We know he ate and ate, growing beefy and strong. He probably evaded the teeth of numerous seafaring predators. He likely swam circles around the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Japan. He gained fortitude and moxie and, one day, a certain tingle of destiny in his belly and his fins. Instinctively, he felt the firm tug of love in the salty water around him. He craved the cold, fresh waters of his birthplace, and to see his kind. He stoically gathered strength for the return trip to his homeland, envisioning a frisky date on the banks of Idaho’s beautiful Redfish Lake.
The Perilous Upstream Battle…
Swimming 900 miles up three rivers and climbing 6,500 feet without eating isn’t easy. But time after time Idaho’s salmon make this epic return trip against all odds — because to breed in the backwoods of the state’s wild places is in their blood. Though brutal, millions of salmon once made this journey back to spawn, then die on the banks of Idaho’s rivers and streams, sacrificing their bodies to offer seafaring nutrients to our landlocked Earth.
So why the near extinction of Idaho’s once prolific salmon? Larry could tell you, in order of appearance, why the task he faced was so daunting and filled with drama. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Four huge dams on the Columbia, and four on the lower Snake. Fish ladders are a gauntlet for these fasting fish, and scientists estimate that between 15 and 30 percent of returning salmon die during passage through eight fish ladders and reservoirs.
Is it any wonder so many salmon see unnatural and untimely ends on the return journey, too? The task would need a superhero in the form of a salmon. But with Larry, that’s exactly what we got.
During his journey home, he once again began to change color. This time, taking on the hue of deep desire, his whole body transforming into a deep and brilliant red. His head grew green, and his nose dashingly crooked. Larry had become a redfish, ruggedly handsome and prepared to complete his journey to the beauty of Redfish Lake.
Larry was among only 15 sockeye salmon to pass by the eighth and final dam in the summer of 1992. And he was the only sockeye to survive the remaining journey home. And he was the first sockeye salmon to return after his species was declared endangered in 1991.
Never Say Die…
Lonesome Larry arrived at Redfish Lake entirely alone in the world. Three Dog Night was right: one is the loneliest number.
Ragged and worn down, his battered skin and scales showed the wear of his 900-mile up-river toil. He’d declared a hunger strike for the journey, his mind focused on only one thing. A female sockeye. The perpetuation of his species. The opportunity to spawn.
Sadly, Larry would not find a flirty female digging a spawning nest for two on the banks of his destiny at Redfish Lake. Instead, he found a human in a uniform peering from above. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game, with a lifeline of last resort.
Find out what Larry left behind, and how he spawned hope for an entire fish nation. Learn the legacy »