Your guide to the 2017 Kokanee salmon run at Causey Reservoir

Monday , September 11, 2017 - 1:40 PM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

It isn’t just the leaves changing color this week to signal the ever-spinning cycle of life.

Each fall, thousands of Kokanee salmon turn red and surge upstream to the tributaries they once hatched, where they swim, spawn and succumb. Phil Douglass with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources says it’s worthing adding to the Northern Utah adventure bucket list for fall, especially since a large population lives just a few miles away in Causey Reservoir.

RELATED: PHOTOS: Thousands of bright red Kokanne salmon make spawning run above Causey Reservoir

“I think it’s one of the neatest places to see Kokanee salmon in the state,” Douglass said. “I’m a little biased, but it’s a beautiful paddle trip to go to tributaries and also a neat hike — a unique experience.”

The spawn typically peaks around Sept. 16, making this weekend an especially good time to go on a salmon safari.

The Kokanee in Causey and other reservoirs in Utah are a type of Sockeye salmon. They hatch in freshwater streams, but instead of swimming to the ocean to feed and grow they swim to freshwater lakes. After about four years, the fish reach adulthood and undergo a rapid change.

“As they start putting all their energy into producing eggs or sperm, that also triggers compounds for them to change not just their shape but also their color,” said DWR biologist Clint Brunson. 

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Males in particular undergo a striking transformation — developing humps and pronounced snouts. Brunson said it’s similar to male deer sprouting racks of antlers or male ducks growing showy plumage.

“It’s mainly to show they’re bigger and better ... so they can fight off other males trying to spawn with females,” he said.

The physical changes make the normally silvery fish breathtaking for humans to see. There are three ways to enjoy the salmon run at Causey Reservoir — paddling, hiking or driving.

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Boat

Visiting by boat is the most work but has the biggest payoff. Only non-motorized boats are allowed in Causey Reservoir and personal flotation devices or lifejackets must be worn at all times.

The tributaries are all easy to reach by boat, but Douglass recommends paddling to the Left Fork of the South Fork of the Ogden River. It’s a tributary feeding the reservoir to the east, north (or left) of the right fork as you paddle away from the dam. The Left Fork is hard to access by foot, meaning fewer people but a large concentration of Kokanee. 

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“It’s not long, maybe a mile, but the water is so crystal clear,” Douglass said. “I think the leaves will be turning all over up in there. With red maples leave dropping into the stream, all these red fish, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

When the tributary becomes shallow, it’s important to beach the boat so it doesn’t drag along the creek bottom and disturb eggs. Once the boat is beached, Douglass said paddlers can continue to walk upstream to enjoy the throngs of fish, being careful not to disturb them.

Hike

For those without boats, Skull Crack Trail offers a moderate hike to the Right Fork of the South Fork of the Ogden River. Large numbers of Kokanee gather there, too. The 2.5-mile trail is steep but not difficult and offers sweeping views of the reservoir and surrounding forest before descending down to the Right Fork.

Other wildlife might be visible, too, waiting to feed on the brightly colored fish.

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While exploring the stream, take care not to disturb the salmon or their egg deposits, called redds.

“You can get close to stream, they’ll spook into a pool, but they’re focused on one thing,” Munson said. “Their time is short, just be cautious and stay out of the water so you’re not smashing the redds.”

Return back to the trailhead the way you came.

Drive

Fewer salmon swim up Wheat Grass Creek to spawn, but visiting this tributary on the reservoir’s north side is a quick and easy way to see the fish. After arriving at Causey, stay left instead of driving over the dam. Stay on the dirt road to go down Wheat Grass Canyon and park near the smaller dam just before the Boy Scout’s Camp Kiesel.

It’s a short walk down to the creek.

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Not many Kokanee will be above the dam, but some should be visible swimming below it, before the creek flows into the reservoir. 

“It’s a fun way to see some wildlife,” Munson said.

Anglers, take note

Kokanee salmon are not native to Utah, but they’ve been introduced to the state due to their popularity among anglers. But by state law, anglers can’t catch any kokanee from Sept. 10 to Nov. 30 to help protect the spawn.

Causey Reservoir’s Right Hand and Left Hand forks are also closed to fishing from Aug.15 through the last Saturday of September for the salmon run.

Once salmon turn red and start spawning the fish don’t taste good anyway and they’re hard to catch. They’re not eating, running off fat reserves and getting ready to die, making their way for the next generation of fish. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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