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‘Sneakers’ complicate spawning kokanee

Living the Wild Life

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A pair of large red kokanee remained almost motionless as they lay suspended over a large depression in the gravel in an eddy at Big Elk Creek that runs into Palisades Reservoir. Suddenly the female turned on her side and using her tail as a shovel, removed more pebbles out of the depression, making her “redd” better for laying her eggs in.

The brighter red colored male watched the female and protected the redd by occasionally chasing off other males that attempted to approach the nest. If another female approaches the redd, the female would stop her nest building and chased it away.

After the nest was ready, the female deposited up to a thousand eggs in the redd and the male l moved in quickly, squirting “milt” over the eggs to fertilize them. This action alerted “single” males that have not been chosen by a female as her “significant other.” As the male attempted to chase off the males, a male would sneak in and quickly attempted to fertilize some of the eggs.

“We call these single males ‘sneakers’”, Brett High, the Upper Snake River Valley Regional Fisheries Manager, said while discussing the kokanee spawning. “Since they will soon be dying, they have a powerful urge to pass their genes onto the next generation. So, they sneak in and fertilize what eggs they can before being chased away.”

Life is just not fair in many ways. None of the fathers and mothers in the kokanee world will never see any of their kids or get to tend their grandkids as they will all die within weeks of spawning.

Big Elk Creek is probably the best area spot to witness the battles that go on during the kokanee spawning season. I recently walked several streams in Island Park and saw a few kokanee spawning in the Henrys Lake Outlet, but most of the traditional streams, like Moose Creek, that produced kokanee were ruined during the Yellowstone fires.

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The male kokanee attacks two other males (sneakers) that were trying to fertilize newly laid eggs in a redd. | Bill Schiess,

“We have tried hard to get a good population of kokanee in Island Park Reservoir by planting them there,” said High. “But we really don’t know what happens to them. We hope those trying to spawn in the Henrys Fork Outlet with develop into a good spawning population for the reservoir.”

High also said that there are a few spawners in Bear Creek, running into Palisades, but all of them were placed there by Fish and Game to try to get production started there.

Ririe Reservoir is one of the top producing kokanee fisheries in the state but it has no natural spawning. A few fish will attempt to run up Willow Creek but the Fish and Game has not seen any natural recruitment from those fish.

“Ririe continues to be a ‘grow and take’ fishery,” according to High. “The Ririe fish grow very rapidly and the faster the growth, the earlier in their life they will spawn, making those fish mature in one to two years. In Island Park Reservoir, it takes from two to three years for them to mature and to spawn.”

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A male kokanee protects a female as she digs a redd to lay her eggs in. | Bill Schiess,

Mackay Reservoir is another place people can try viewing spawning kokanee but it is almost dry, holding only 3.4 percent of its capacity. When asked it that will destroy the kokanee fishing this year at Mackay, High said that the last time it was this low was in 2004 and ice fishing was rather good that winter.

“If someone really wants to see thousands of kokanee spawning, they should go to Deadwood River over near Boise.” High said.

“They are really thick over there but they will need to hurry because they should be done spawning by mid-September.”

The Redfish Lake inlet will have fish spawning a little long into October because of the different subspecies that are in that system.

If you have never seen kokanee spawning, grab the chance; it is one of those things in nature that will astound you.