RIVERDALE The annual run of salmon is under way in a narrow stream below the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. The powerful fish surge several yards up the strong current, then find a place to rest behind a rock or slight turn in the creek before continuing their swim up stream.
The journey completes the life cycle of the Chinook salmon. They return upstream to lay their eggs, then die after spawning. Some of the fish never make it all the way. Their carcasses sometimes litter the edges of the creek where they become easy food for predators.
The stream was constructed by fish hatchery personnel in 2006 and the salmon took to it immediately. The stream leads from the outdoor ponds at the fish hatchery to the Missouri River, a distance of perhaps a half mile.
A salmon pauses to rest before continuing to swim up North Dakota’s only salmon stream.
Visitors watch as salmon ascend this stream that flows into the Missouri River below the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. The annual spectacle is open to the public.
"In 2005 we had a fair amount of water from the hatchery going in that direction," said Rob Holm, project manager. "We saw salmon in a pool down there trying to get over log jams. It was quite a sight. "
By the following year the hatchery staff had used heavy equipment to cut a stream bed through to the Missouri River. With some help from local boy scouts and the Great Planers Trout and Salmon Club, the stream was completed to appear as natural as possible. It is complete with a cobble bed, large rocks which salmon can tuck behind when they become tired and various small obstacles over which water tumbles down the stream.
Holm said the possibility of creating a salmon stream first occurred in 1996. During a period when excess water was flowing from a pond and into the Missouri, a number of Chinooks were observed trying to leap over logs that were lying in the water.
"This year there was a beaver dam blocking the culvert at the Tailrace," said Holm. "The Corps of Engineers used a backhoe to clear that out and we had fish coming upstream right away."
The creation of the stream not only serves as an interesting view for the public, but has a practical application as well. Some of the salmon swimming up the stream are captured in a concrete holding tank where they are removed by North Dakota Game and Fish personnel and transported to the nearby hatchery. There they are artificially spawned. The young produced are eventually returned to Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River.
The record high flows in the Missouri River system in 2011 resulted in a great deal of movement from the nation's only disease-free strain of landlocked salmon. A Nebraska angler set a new state record salmon this year. It was a fish tagged in North Dakota, an indicator of how much salmon movement occurred during a flood year.
This year the small salmon stream could have more significance than usual. That's because South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota work closely to keep each other supplied with enough salmon eggs to sustain a viable salmon population in Lake Oahe, Fort Peck Reservoir and Lake Sakakawea. So far this year South Dakota and Montana have been struggling to capture adult salmon. Some years the neighboring states supply North Dakota with eggs. This year the tables may be reversed.
"I'm told Fort Peck only had 10 females," said Holm, noting that the Montana spawning effort never does as well as does North Dakota. "It looks like South Dakota only had one fish come up their ladder. That flush could have moved their fish downstream. We know they had some of ours down there this summer."
Some of the salmon moving up the stream this past week were turning black in color. Some were showing blotches of white, an indicator of a rough journey up stream and that they are nearing the end of their life span.
"They average three years of age," said Holm. "Some of the males are only two."