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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Clockwise from left, Justin Robinson, Randy Harrison, Allan Ward and Sid Patlakin sort ripe females. Their eggs are then harvested and fertilized.

STRAWBERRY RESERVOIR — The Strawberry River and some of its main tributaries are currently running red and will continue this way for the next month.

The kokanee salmon are spawning. It is their final act in life. Their once gleaming silver bodies are now a crimson red. And, instead of looking for food, they are searching for a place to mate and die.

Some fish will spawn naturally. That is, they will find a spot in the river, in twos, one male, one female, and lay and fertilize their eggs.

Others will swim into a fish trap, place themselves in the hands of crews from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, be stripped of eggs and sperm, and then die.

The end is inescapable. The fate of their young, however, can be determined to some degree.

Survival of hatchery-raised eggs, said Allan Ward, project leader at Strawberry for the DWR, is upwards of 50 percent.

"Spawning naturally, survival is around 5 percent, sometimes maybe up to 10 percent. But survival is a lot less. If you only get two fish that survive from each male and female, that's the way nature works. We help to increase those odds," said Ward.

DWR crews began taking eggs last week.

When the project started there were about 2,000 fish in the traps. The hope is to get another 2,000 fish before the spawn begins to subside, which usually occurs in mid-October.

The goal is to gather around 2 million eggs, which would require stripping about 1,500 female kokanee.

"We had about 1,000 females in our traps when we started, so we're well on our way to our objective," he added.

Even though this run is good, said Ward, it is far short of the best kokanee run, which was in 2000 when 15,000 fish ran through the traps at Strawberry.

"The difference is survival. We had really good year classes leading up to both 1999 and 2000. A lot of the fish we stocked, for whatever reason, were not eaten," he added.

"This year, for the first time, we were able to document kokanee fishing through a creel census. What we found was this was a really good year. We were able to document that a lot of kokanee were caught. A lot of those that were caught were stocked in 2004."

Survival is also related to a change in stocking procedures. Fish were once stocked in the reservoir itself. Now the majority of hatchery-raised kokanee are stocked near the mouths of three main streams — Indian Creek, Trout Creek and Strawberry River.

"What we discovered when we stocked kokanee just off the boat ramp was that two years later the fish were back and hanging out around the boat ramp to spawn," Ward explained.

"Salmon imprint where they are stocked and return there when it's time to spawn. We found when we stock fish near streams and rivers we have better runs when those fish mature."

Most kokanee mature and return to spawn at age 3. These fish are referred to as two-plus. Some mature early, at age 2, and some at 4 years. The larger kokanee, said Ward, "are your 4-year-olds. About 75 percent of the fish mature at 3."

Eggs taken from Strawberry will be moved to the Midway Hatchery where they will incubate for a couple of weeks, then be transferred to the Mantua Hatchery where they will be cared for until next spring when they are about 2 inches long.

If survival numbers are close to 50 percent, then the 2 million eggs will translate into at least 400,000 fish being returned to Strawberry, another 300,000 will go to Flaming Gorge and 30,000 will be planted in Porcupine Reservoir.

After spending a lifetime, which is typically between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years, as a silver-colored fish with evenly rounded features, the kokanee undergo an incredible metamorphosis going into the spawn. The male's changes are the most pronounced.

Their skin turns bright red, except the head, which turns black. In the case of the male kokanee, their bodies actually compress and form a large hump on their backs. Their jaws elongate and hook.

At this point they will return to the stream where they were released or hatched, and begin the life cycles all over again.

Annual Strawberry Festival

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The annual Strawberry Festival will be held this Friday and Saturday at the visitors center at Strawberry Reservoir.

Interested individuals will have the opportunity to witness kokanee salmon make their annual spawning run in Strawberry River.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and U.S. Forest Service have built a viewing area along the river. There are interpretive signs and a boardwalk along the river to view spawning pairs of fish.

There will be a number of activities offered. There will also be DWR biologists on hand to answer questions.

Hours are noon to 6 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com