Thanks to increased flows on the Dolores River from summer monsoon rains, the kokanee salmon had enough water to make their spawning run this year.
Last year, there was no run because the lake was so low, explained Jim White, a aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
In low water years, the river carves a wide channel in the lake bed that is too shallow for the kokanee salmon to make their way to spawning grounds, 5 miles up river at a specially designed fish hatchery.
But deeper water triggered a run this year attracting bald eagles to the valley and a line of people at the traditional November fish giveaway in Dolores.
“They’re smaller because of the drought, and they ran early, but the meat tastes better also,” said CPW aquatic biologist Jim White while harvesting the fish at the hatchery on Halloween. He and two assistants scoop huge nets full of fish into the back of a truck.
The result was a horse trough full of salmon, about 1,500 or so, slithering and flopping to their death.
“It’s more humane then what nature has in store for them,” said Pete Deren, a CPW fish technician. “We got them early, otherwise they will slowly rot to death and fall apart while still alive.”
The kokanee spawning zone on the Dolores River is a system of ponds that drain into a concrete-formed “raceway”, controlled by gates, sieves, and fish cages. The females lay their eggs in the fine gravel, and then go off and die, becoming a meal for eagles, bears, and otters.
Some eggs are harvested by biologists and raised in the Durango fish hatchery to be distributed to other hatcheries and lakes, including back to the Dolores.
From the hatchery, they float down river and into McPhee Reservoir, with most becoming a meal for predator fish. Those that survive, about 5 percent, spend 3 to 4 years maturing and then make their way to where they were born to lay eggs.
“They remember the smell of the water coming from these ponds, and the cycle is repeated,” White said.
CPW takes pride in providing the salmon to the public. Some years, several thousand are given out, and people are turned away.
Kokanee are a healthier fish because they are not predators, and therefore don’t accumulate mercury like crawdads, trout, and bass.
“They utilize the middle lake habitat, live away from the shoreline and predators, feeding on phytoplankton,” White said.
At Joe Rowell Park, its an easy catch. Those with a fishing license are giving 40 fish each, and can receive more based on availability. Just get back in line.
Coolers are filled, a guy arrives on a bike, inspects the catch, fills up a grocery bag with salmon and rides off. Gutting and filleting techniques are discussed and recipes are exchanged.
CPW fish technician Graham Mytton suggests a brining and smoking technique.
“A tempura batter works works well, and canning is a good way also,” he says.
Jessica Sutch stuffs them with shrimp and dill and then bakes them, and Jared Sam says its easier than snagging them.
“I come and get them ,and my wife figures out how to cook them up,” Sam said.
The kokanee connection is a well-loved local tradition. Perhaps a theme for a future festival?
“We smoke them, freeze them, and serve them up as appetizers at Christmas,” say brother and sister Jeanne Freed and Mike Lent “The holidays would not be the same with out kokanee snacks when the relatives come over.”
Another kokanee giveaway is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 7, at 3 p.m. in Joe Rowell Park. A current Colorado fishing license is required.
Snagging season, whereby anglers are allowed to cast multiple hook lines to reel in salmon, runs Nov. 15 through Dec. 1.