Few kokanee salmon will be available for the public fish giveaway in Dolores at 3 p.m. Oct. 24 because of a weak spawn up the Dolores River, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
However, there will be three chances for the public to receive free kokanee at Lake Nighthorse near Durango on Nov. 1, 8 and 15. Gates open at 2 p.m., and the giveaway starts at 3 p.m. A current Colorado fishing license is required.
Low water conditions at McPhee in 2018 – combined with significant predation from walleye, smallmouth bass and river otters – reduced the kokanee population this year more than expected, said Jim White, a CPW aquatic biologist.
“It is a lot less than we anticipated, so we want to tamp down expectations for the Dolores event,” White said. If 30 people show up, it would likely be just two to three fish each, or less if more people attend the giveaway.
CPW had hoped the spawn would bring in 300 fish to give away, but less than half that arrived.
CPW urges residents to attend the Lake Nighthorse giveaway, where people are more likely to get up to 10 fish each.
“It’s tough, we thought about canceling the Dolores event, but would hate to do that,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski. “No disrespect to Dolores, there were just less kokanee this year. There are more chances a short drive away.”
To get the fish, participants must have a fishing license. CPW officials don’t want someone to buy a day fishing license for the Dolores event then find out there are only two to three fish – or none – available.
The Dolores spawn was late this year, White said, and the fish were bigger – some, 12-14 inches long.
Bigger kokanee indicate a reduced overall population, he said, because food is abundant when there is less competition for it. The fewer number of fish, the more each one can fatten up.
Walleye are especially fond of preying on kokanee, White said. The low water at McPhee in 2018 caused crowded conditions for fish, and the increased overlap of prey and predator habitat left the kokanee vulnerable.
“You can never tell for sure, but they probably took a good hit from walleye. Walleye can be a tough fish to catch, because they are always full of kokanee and not hungry enough to take the bait,” White said. Brown trout and smallmouth bass also prey on kokanee.
Most of the fish arrived at the Dolores State Wildlife Area spawning grounds, northeast of Dolores, in the past 10 days. They swim up a concrete raceway where they were released when young.
They remember the spot and return three to four years later as adults to spawn. CPW staff assist with the spawn and collect the fertilized eggs, which are hatched in the Durango State Wildlife hatchery. When 1 inch long, the kokanee are released in spring into the upper Dolores, where they swim to McPhee Reservoir and mature. The process is repeated.
“Kokanee populations are notoriously difficult to predict and tend to fluctuate a lot, based on environmental factors, food and the number of predators,” White said.
A survey downriver on the Dolores River on Friday did not reveal a large school heading upstream from McPhee, he added.
Otters, eagles and bears also are getting their fill of kokanee upriver.