Kokanee Salmon at Taylor Creek (via SR 89 in South Tahoe)

Copyright © 2014 Jared Manninen

Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no problem with Lake Tahoe’s scenery during the fall. The views are as idyllic as any mountainous locale in the world. Really, I’m not complaining. It’s just that I have this one minor, teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy gripe. And this is coming from an artist, mind you, so take it with a grain of salt. There’s always one small element missing from Lake Tahoe’s autumn landscape, and that’s the color RED.

Sure, some Sierra Nevada flora does transform into a burnt orange or rust color. And, there are even a few leaved bushes that yield a reddish hue. However, there’s nothing as brilliant as the deciduous forests of my youth growing up in the upper Midwest.

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I realize that I no longer live in the Midwest. However, I’m an artist and am fond of seeing the full spectrum of colors in nature during the fall. There’s something definitive about witnessing a green leaf turn red marking the passage of time and signaling the shift from one season to the next.

2020 Kokanee Salmon Spawning Season Update

The 2020 Kokanee Salmon spawning season and access to Taylor Creek is off-limits to the public.

Due to COVID-19 social distancing practices, as well as the sheer mayhem (illegal camping, illegal campfires, destruction of public lands, excessive litter, etc…) of the 2020 summer at Lake Tahoe, the Forest Service has closed off all access to Taylor Creek during the Kokanee spawning season. Their decision was also a direct result of the increasing practice of visitors making sport of taking selfies with bears as they feed (the bears, that is) on Kokanee Salmon. SMH.

This closure includes the entirety of Taylor Creek, beginning at the Fallen Leaf Lake outflow all the way to Kiva Beach.

An Artistic Calling, Literally

I finally found some “red leaves” in 2012. Apparently, one or two local artists slated for a community-based art project failed to make good on their commitment.

My name was passed from one person to another as a backup to a backup for the project. Or, so the story goes. I don’t recall the details of how it all manifested. The bottom line is that I inherited the project of decorating a resin-cast sculpture of a Kokanee Salmon.

The overall concept was to celebrate the Kokanee Salmon and their fall spawning season. Multiple artists were selected to decorate multiple sculptures. Once completed, the fish would then be displayed at prominent locations around South Lake Tahoe. When I inherited the project, I had about a week to complete the thing. And, I knew nothing about Kokanee Salmon at the time.

More important than the project details, however, are the lessons I learned while researching Kokanee Salmon.

Copyright © 2012 Jared Manninen
The Kokanee Salmon I painted (featuring faux Polaroid photos of a family vacationing at Lake Tahoe) was further decorated with lichen to dress up its base (by a different artist) and eventually made its way into the South Lake Tahoe visitors’ center. Whether or not it’s still there I couldn’t say as I haven’t been to the visitor center in a couple of years. And, in retrospect, I see that I should’ve painted those fins green! © Jared Manninen

Very Brief History of Kokanee Salmon

Kokanee Salmon were anthropogenically (i.e. introduced by human) added to Lake Tahoe in the 1940s. Specifically, they were stocked at Taylor Creek. People believed they would make for great sport fishing.

Each October the Kokanee Salmon return to Taylor Creek. This is because, as juveniles (aka fingerlings), the scent of Taylor Creek was imprinted on their senses.

Once a rush of cold water from the creek (usually brought on by fall rains) flows into Lake Tahoe carrying the creek’s scent, many Kokanee Salmon between the ages of 2-4 years old return to spawn.

At Taylor Creek, they procreate and subsequently die.

As part of the spawning process, Kokanee Salmon turn a bright red color in order to attract a mate. And I mean bright! Every visitor to Lake Tahoe during the fall should witness this sight at least once.

Taylor Creek is located on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, just south of Emerald Bay. See the map at the bottom of article to locate Taylor Creek.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Kokanee Salmon in Taylor Creek on October 10, 2017. © Jared Manninen

Physical Characteristics of Kokanee Salmon

The sexual preference of the Kokanee (for the color red) has been passed down from Sockeye Salmon. This is because Sockeye Salmon are of the same evolutionary branch.

Sockeye Salmon swim to the ocean and eat species that contain carotenoid pigments enabling them to turn red. On the other hand, Kokanee Salmon are land-locked and have adapted by processing the pigments far more efficiently.

There’s simply less food in freshwater that contains carotenoid pigments. But Kokanee Salmon preference for the color red has remained, hence their adaptation.

In addition to transforming from their natural silver-blue color to red, males develop a green head and fins. They also have a hump back, a protruding jaw (that gives them a serious overbite), and big teeth.

This Mr. Hyde-like appearance can be a bit startling and their intense red color is arresting. These transformative characteristics enable them to intimidate other male Kokanee. This provides them (the ones doing the intimidating) the greatest chances of mating.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
A dead male Kokanee Salmon on the bank of Taylor Creek on October 10, 2017. Click the image for a larger viewing of the characteristics (hump back, pronounced jaw, and large teeth) that help it intimidate fellow male Kokanee. Note that all of its color (red scales and green head and fins) has already begun to fade. © Jared Manninen

Brief Overview of the Kokanee Salmon Life Cycle

The Kokanee make their way up Taylor Creek. And, a female, having selected a mate, begins to make her nesting area called a redd. She creates this redd by swimming in circles and swishing her tail around a specific area. This leads to the formation of a 4-6 inch pocket in the bed of the creek.

Once completed, she deposits her eggs and moves. Then, her selected mate fertilizes the eggs and guards the site. The female can lay eggs in multiple redds depositing between 400-1200 in total. However, each male remains at their respective site.

Only a tiny fraction of the total eggs will end up surviving despite the males’ best efforts to protect them. Within a few days of laying the eggs the female will die, followed shortly thereafter by the males. Although, the males sometimes survive for up to two weeks following the fertilization process.

It takes approximately 3-5 months for the surviving eggs to hatch. At that point they’ll lie in wait beneath the gravel for another couple of weeks developing the ability to feed themselves.

They then emerge from their hiding places as baby fish called fry. For another month they’ll hang out and eat, gaining the necessary size and strength for their journey to Lake Tahoe.

During this transformation from fry to fingerling, they gain their sense of place in Taylor Creek. Mostly, this involves learning Taylor Creek’s distinct scent. As fingerlings, the Kokanee swim to Lake Tahoe and live for 2-4 years. They’ll eventually return and continue their cycle of birth and death in Taylor Creek.

Copyright © 2014 Jared Manninen
A variety of Kokanee Salmon swimming in Taylor Creek on October 4, 2014. The males are generally more red than the females. There are at least two fish in this photo (more blue-silver than the others) that are either female or are not yet ready to spawn. © Jared Manninen

Challenges That Kokanee Salmon Face

The tale of the Kokanee Salmon is a grand one providing a microcosmic look at the macrocosmic world.

What I find most fascinating is that, inherent within their story, is one very problematic element. And it’s the same that we all face which, is to say, that we live in a finite space.

Taylor Creek is barely two miles long. The creek is limited in size, so it’s also limited in resources. And, it’s constantly at the mercy of nature.

Many predators in the vicinity know of this place. Water fowl such as Mergansers will actually eat the whole adult fish. Mallards, on the other hand (and other fish and critters) will seek out their eggs.

Once the Kokanee spawn and die, their rotting carcasses scent the air. You’ll often observe scavenging critters such as Raccoon and Coyote arrive for this feast.

Black Bears are mostly vegetarian. However, they’ll still wind up congregating around the banks of Taylor Creek.

For this last reason, it’s not uncommon for the Forest Service to close off the upper portion of Taylor Creek to visitors.

Copyright © 2014 Jared Manninen
A female Mallard swimming among the Kokanee Salmon and looking for breakfast on October 12, 2014. © Jared Manninen

Additional Challenges of the Kokanee Salmon

Other problematic factors for the Kokanee Salmon that are directly related to the small size of Taylor Creek are:

  • Drought conditions
  • Excessively wet conditions
  • Presence of Beaver dams.

Kokanee are slow to spawn during years where there’s little rain to fill Taylor Creek. Remember, they need that cold rush of water to carry its scent into Lake Tahoe.

Even when traveling upstream, they face limited water in which to swim and lay eggs. Also consider the fact that a lack of water results in a lack of oxygen. This adversely affects the development of the eggs.

Too much water introduced into Taylor Creek at one time can cause other problems. The introduction of too much water may be due to flooding conditions, for example. Essentially, the massive increase in water (in a short time) can wash the eggs downstream. This either will destroy them or simply leave them unprotected.

Beaver dams are not inherently bad things. However, at Taylor Creek they stem the flow of water and limit the already finite real estate where Kokanee spawn. In response to this situation, Forest Service personnel will often cut notches into the dams. This allows water to flow more freely down the creek. On paper it’s a great idea, but in practice it’s challenging. Too small of a notch has no effect. Too big of a notch floods the creek. Again, this can wash the eggs away. But it also causes additional erosion to the banks of the creek depositing excessive amounts of sediment into Lake Tahoe. And, if the notch is cut just right (in a bad way, that is), it’ll become a fire hose. This jet stream of water shooting out of the notch creates such a stiff current that the fish become too exhausted to carry on.

The Forest Service aids Kokanee Salmon in another way by placing fingerlings elsewhere at Lake Tahoe. They’ll place fingerlings in the middle of the lake as well as other mountain lakes. This can cause the fish to (hopefully) find another location in which to spawn each fall. This approach has yielded some success as evidenced by sightings of Kokanee spawning in the Truckee River.

Copyright © Jared Manninen
A group of Kokanee Salmon swimming further up Taylor Creek on October 12, 2014. © Jared Manninen

Kokanee Salmon Festival

During the first week of October, the Forest service holds an annual celebration of the Kokanee Salmon spawning season. This event is called the Kokanee Salmon Festival.

Specifically, the event is located at the Taylor Creek Visitor Center. The center is a satellite location of the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Here there are tours and a gift shop)

It’s worth taking the family to in order to learn more about this cool species of fish.

Please note that for 2020, the Kokanee Salmon celebration has been cancelled. And, all access to Taylor Creek has been restricted for October. See the update at the top of this page.

Final Thoughts About Kokanee Salmon

The Kokanee Salmon are a non-native species to Lake Tahoe. And, clearly they require some management in which to enable their survival. So one of my questions was, “Why bother trying to protect and save them?”

The fact is that they’re not an invasive species. Kokanee Salmon aren’t taking over the place. For reasons beyond their control, Kokanee Salmon are a part of the Lake Tahoe ecosystem. And, they’re simply trying to survive.

In many respects, they do actually contribute to the overall health (ecologically and economically) of the Lake Tahoe Basin. They provide food for many native species. And, they’re also an attraction related to outdoor recreation in the form of sport fishing and sightseeing.

I might also add that they add a little red color to the landscape during the fall at Lake Tahoe.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
This is a digital reproduction of an acrylic on canvas painting I created in 2014. The original artwork was an auction item I created and donated for the organization called Live Violence Free in South Lake Tahoe. However, this digital version (with Lake Tahoe text) is available as a poster or print and can be purchased from me. Click the image to see the different printing options. © Jared Manninen