Goldstream Provincial Park, Salmon Run

Salmon Run

mid-late October -> early December

Goldstream has a world-class salmon spawning stream with thousands of Chum Salmon returning each year. Bright colours and hooked jaws develop on male Chum salmon after they enter breeding streams. This accounts for the very different appearance these fish have from when they are caught in the ocean.

Every autumn, million of Pacific salmon forge their way up the myriad streams of the Pacific northwest to spawn and die. Pacific salmon have always been fishes of mystery. We know them well as fine food, and as superb sport fish, but the details of how they spend their time in the ocean and of how they find their way back to their home pools in their parent streams are even today not fully understood.

In Goldstream, salmon appear about mid-October, and may be seen for about nine weeks, the dates varying from year to year. Of the five kinds of North American Pacific salmon it is the Chum salmon that is most abundant in this river, though you may also see some Coho and Chinook salmon, as well as the Steelhead and the Cutthroat trout.

If you watch quietly and do not disturb the fish, you will likely see some working their way upstream, while others, in pairs or groups, dig, defend their "redds' or nests, and spawn in the gravel. The female selects the spawning place, and digs the "redd" or trench for her eggs. This she does by turning on her side and repeatedly lifting her tail violently away from the gravel. A partial vacuum lifts the gravel, and the current moves it a little way downstream, leaving the desired trench.

When the redd is near completion the female tests it for depth by arching her body in a "u" shape and feeling for the bottom with her extended anal fins. Meanwhile the male stands guard close by, fighting off rival males who approach the redd. The big, hooked jaws and large, strong teeth, with which the fish fights, develop only as the fish approaches sexual maturity. With them it can wound quite severely. When the trench is ready the female moves over it to deposit her eggs or "roe" in batches, the male crowding close to fertilize the eggs with showers of white "milt".

Chums do not pair as definitely as most other kinds of salmon, so you may see one female with two or more males. More than one may share in fertilizing her eggs. When the task of laying and fertilizing the eggs is completed the redd is covered. This is accomplished simply by the female moving her digging upstream, so that gravel is now shifted over newly laid eggs. Eventually she will have completed a "redd" or trench, in which her eggs lie covered, then, weak and exhausted, the salmon slowly dies. But in the gravel a new generation lives to carry on the cycle of life.

You will miss much, though, if you visit Goldstream and notice only the salmon. Their spawning is only the most obvious and dramatic episode in a complicated interplay between many creatures of forest, stream, air, and sea, and the forces of nature. As you watch the salmon, look also for the speckled flanks of the sea-going Cutthroat trout that are here for a feast of roe; look, too, at the "Dippers". The small birds that teeter on the rocks between underwater forays for salmon eggs. Some gulls are after the same fare, too, whilst others greedily gorge on dead and dying salmon.

You, of course, only see a few who share your interest in the spawning fish. At night come the shy mink, raccoon, otter, and, perhaps, a bear. Bacteria in their visible billions are breaking down the tissues of the dead fish, as are the fungi. These latter you may notice as discoloured patches on fins or body. Obviously the salmon don't simply come here to spawn and die and that is the end, for all about you is a host of living things taking the energy stored in the salmon's body and recycling it via the forest or the stream back to the sea. The Indians of old, believing that the "salmon people" were immortal, returned salmon bones to the river so that they might be used again by the fish. If you think about it, this Indian philosophy held much wisdom.

Three kinds of the five Pacific salmon are here. Most people see only the Chum salmon that usually spawn in very large numbers in the main shallows of the stream. The males are a dingy grey-green, often developing reddish-purple vertical bars. The females at sexual maturity are creamy-grey with a dark mid-stripe length-wise along each side. But both may vary.

In some years Coho salmon spawn in considerable numbers in Goldstream, in other years they are scarce. They tend to be shy and secretive, often hiding beneath logs and overhanging banks, and they like restricted spawning places such as tiny tributaries, or even ditches. Both male and female Coho at maturity have dark green heads and backs and bright cherry red on their sides. The third kind of Pacific salmon seen here is the Chinook or Spring salmon, which seems to be increasing its numbers since recent stream improvements were carried out. From the bank these are noticeably larger salmon, blackish in colour with heavy black spots. Only the males have strong spawning colours, and are more purplish-black than Coho.

A fish you are unlikely to see in Goldstream during the salmon runs is the Steelhead, a sea-going rainbow trout that differs in a number of respects from the salmon. Adult Steelhead come into Goldstream, in winter, spawning there in spring. The young stay in the stream for two years before going to the sea, and the adults often survive to spawn more than once. If you observe, you can easily see that the salmon prefer to spawn in coarse gravel through which there is a constant flow of water. This is because the eggs must have a constant supply of oxygen brought to them in water. Silt or sand would smother them.

In March, with the coming of spring warmth and rains, the salmon eggs hatch into tiny "aelvins" that hide briefly in water pockets within the gravel, subsisting upon a yoke sac attached to the abdomen. Young Chums soon leave the gravel, and go to sea on spring freshets, young Coho stay in the streams for two sessions or more. Young Coho and Steelhead are the tiny fish with barred sides visitors see in summer. It is these fish that are so dependent upon the maintenance of year around water levels. Goldstream River has, in recent years, been one of many sites of the Federal-Provincial Salmonid Enhancement Program. In this successful scientific management endeavour government biologists have assisted local volunteer angling groups to greatly improve the stream's ability to produce fish. It is hoped that through measures such as stream clearance, gravel and boulder additions and fry feeding the Coho salmon, Steelhead, and perhaps Chinook salmon will be increased for the future enjoyment of people.

Tips for Salmon Watchers

These Chum salmon have traveled thousands of kilometers in their four-year lifetime and are at Goldstream to continue their life-cycle by spawning in the river. Visitors must remember that the salmon come first, so please follow a few guidelines when visiting:

* Keep all dogs on a leash & out of the river.
* Approach the river bank slowly and quietly.
* Don't throw anything in the river.

1. Avoid wearing bright coloured clothing, especially reds, purple and pinks which salmon see very well.

2. Avoid coming on weekend afternoons if you can, the park is very crowded.

3. Please car pool if possible, there is limited parking.

4. Bring sunglasses with polarizing lenses to cut sown on glare from the water. These are especially good for children. You can also get polarizing lenses for you cameras.

5. Start your visit at the Nature House. Learn more about eagles and other birds of prey, catch one of the free interpretive programs, or watch the slide show that explains the Bald Eagle life history. Hot beverages, pastries and eagle books are available at the bookstore.

6. Try to find viewing sites that are up high )top of banks, bridges) to increase visibility, while staying on the trail. Small children can see better up on your shoulders.

7. Avoid moving quickly, and approach the river bank quietly. Find fish that are actively building nests and watch for the spawning behaviour.

8. Leave you dog at home. If you do bring a dog it must be on a leash and kept out of the river.

9. Bring your binoculars. Because of changes in the way BC Parks manages the estuary, there are increasing numbers of Bald Eagles and other birds using the salmon round. From Dec. 6 to Feb 29 there will be special Eagle Extravaganza Programs to help interpret the eagles.

10. Do not leave your wallet, purse or other valuables in your car.

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