While most Walllowa Lake kokanee spawn in the Wallowa River, some spawn along the lake’s shoreline. JEFF PETERSEN - The Observer
Visual treat awaits visitors to Wallowa Lake as colorful kokanee lay eggs in river
Kokanee fishing is one of the biggest, year-round draws to Wallowa Lake. The landlocked sockeye are now spawning in and around Wallowa Lake State Park, providing a unique wildlife viewing opportunity.
“Not many people connect with wildlife without a bullet or a hook,” said Jeff Yanke, Enterprise district fish biologist.
For those who connect with wildlife through the lens of a camera, kokanee will be visibly spawning in the Wallowa River for another week, but Yanke asks that people take caution when viewing.
“There is a high risk of trampling redds (egg nests) with so much traffic. This is a very fragile state in their life,” said Yanke.
Because of the fragile state of the spawning fish, their eggs and their habitat, Wallowa State Park is helping the fish and wildlife department by posting signs around the park.
Yanke said another protective measure the state takes is closing the fishing season on the Wallowa River above the lake on Aug. 31. Fishing remains open on the river below the dam until April 15 and kokanee fishing is open year-round in Wallowa Lake.
Most spawning kokanee are between seven and 16 inches and are between two and four years old. They can be seen at the delta of the river all the way up to Boy Scout Falls, said Yanke.
Historically, the entire area encompassing the Wallowa Lake State Park Campground was a huge spawning ground. The river was eventually channeled around the campground to keep it from flooding.
Canneries once dotted the shores of Wallowa Lake when fish were more abundant and the Nez Perce Tribe had a fishing camp on the south end of the lake.
Kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon. Like steelhead and rainbow trout, kokanee and sockeye are the same species. When there is no barrier, some choose to migrate to the ocean and others remain residents of a lake.
The sockeye were gone from Wallowa Lake in the early twentieth century, before the dam was built. Reintroducing sockeye to the lake is impossible until the dam is replaced with fish passage, though both the state and the Nez Perce Tribe dream of re-establishing them one day.
Yanke said where kokanee and sockeye live in the same habitat he thinks of kokanee as an insurance policy for sockeye. Sockeye take a big risk migrating to the ocean and have a higher mortality rate than their kokanee cousins. Yet by migrating they become much bigger, have more fecundity, or ability to reproduce, and bring nutrients back from the ocean.
Despite decades of research, Wallowa Lake’s kokanee have secrets yet to reveal. In 2009, record-sized fish were caught including the world record, a 9.6 pounder, landed by Ron Campbell of Pendleton. The record was previously held at Lake Okanagon in British Columbia.
Yanke said large fish are usually the “kiss of death” for overall populations; generally bigger fish mean fewer fish. Larger fish compete with smaller ones for plankton, their main source of food. However, kokanee numbers in Wallowa Lake have jumped from 78,000 in 2008 to 750,000 in 2011.
Anglers may not be seeing this increase because smaller fish can be harder to catch.
“There are not as many on the line and not as many big ones,” Yanke said.
Kokanee are not counted via spawning ground surveys like chinook, because they create so many more redds in a smaller area. Instead, biologists use high-precision sonar in the summer to count fish and check their size. Biologists also do carcass surveys. Yanke said the size of a carcass correlates to the abundance of the species’ population. While conducting the surveys, they also check for disease.
Another secret the kokanee keep is that while most spawn in the river, others spawn along the shoreline. Yanke said he doesn’t know why this is and that the shoreline spawners remain undocumented.
Natural resource science is ever evolving. In the 1950s, mysis shrimp were introduced to increase the number of kokanee in lakes all over the U.S. What scientist have discovered since then is that kokanee don’t necessarily eat the shrimp, but compete with them for plankton.
Lake trout were also introduced to Wallowa Lake. Unfortunately, they are predatory and eat kokanee. Their numbers remain at a sustainable rate, said Yanke, but so far haven’t hurt the kokanee numbers.
Yanke said the focus on kokanee at Wallowa Lake has always been on recreation, economic development and maintaining a sustainable population.
“The Wallowa Lake kokanee keep bucking all the trends,” said Yanke.