The South Fork of the Salmon River is an 86-mile-long tributary of the Wild and Scenic Salmon River, which happens to be the longest free-running river in the lower 48 states. The Salmon River feeds into the mighty Columbia River which carries it’s waters to the Pacific Ocean.
Both the Salmon and its tributaries are critical habitat to a number of fish, primarily the chinook salmon for which it is named. Salmon River country has been populated by humans for approximately 8,000 years, but by Caucasians for only a little more than 200 years. In those 200 years, the Salmon run, which the indigenous peoples relied upon as a major food source, has been decimated. The reasons are many and highly politicized. The Shoshone-Bannock tribes are working, most recently as part of the Idaho Salmon Workgroup, to restore the dwindling salmon population. The Workgroup includes stakeholders from wildlife conservation, water, power, agricultural, sportsmen, and governmental entities.
Last weekend my friends and I returned from a day hike up the Jackie Creek Trail to find an Idaho Fish & Game truck backed up to the fish tube that feeds into the South Fork of the Salmon River. They were releasing adult salmon, which if I understand correctly, had been trapped at a satellite hatchery station at nearby Warm Lake. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why these fish were being moved from one place to another on the same river, but I’m assuming it has something to do with balancing out the sport and subsistence tribal fishing opportunities.
It was moving to see those big fish splashing into the clear (but unfortunately dangerously warm) water of the river. I was very aware that I was observing something that future generations will not enjoy. I was also very aware of the handful of tribal fishermen waiting to drop their lines in the water. And, a white couple were already in the river fishing as the fish were being released.
We watched for quite a while as the newly released fish swam around exploring this new hole they’d found themselves in. But they weren’t biting. Until, that is, one of the Native Americans tossed his very low-tech line into the river and within seconds had a huge fish on the line. I smiled. But this also was the signal for me to walk away. I eat salmon. It is my favorite fish. But I wasn’t up for observing the inevitable end for that big guy thrashing around as his life ebbed.
Below is a video produced for Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson’s Columbia-Snake River Initiative, which advocates for some highly controversial dam removals in the waters between the Salmon River and the ocean—the vital waterway that salmon need if they are to survive. Are the dams the only thing standing between salmon and extinction? No. But they are perhaps the most obvious and critical of the many factors over which we have control.