Sunday, December 28, 2014

Building a Redd

I confess.  These are steelhead, but they look a lot like healthy salmon.
Cow Creek, near Dillard, Oregon:  Oct. 21

Broken clouds fly quickly overhead.  Here the air is still and damp.  Slightly warm when the sun peeks through; slightly  cool when the clouds rein.  Cow creek is summer shallow.  Clear, tannic stained water flows gently towards the South Umpqua river.  Most of the river bottom is brown and algae covered.  Riffles slip over a spot of clean – a salmon’s redd in the making.  Right now the redd is quiet – clean cobbles shimmering under shallow riffles. 

A faint stirring of air releases an ash leaf and floats it gently down to join others on the slow moving water of Cow Creek.  Soon an oak leaf drops onto the creek surface too.  The trees crowded along the banks of Cow Creek still hold most of their leaves – yellowing and browning after a long, dry summer. 

The redd I am writing about.

This redd is in deeper water and shows better how the female salmon uses her tail to dig into the gravel.  Note how clean the gravel is where she has been working. 
The long dark form of a salmon eases over to the clean gravel of the redd.  She approaches from the side in water so shallow her whitening tail and dorsal fin break the surface.  She flips onto her side, tail thrashing and water splashing.  A small pillow of silt billows from the river bottom and floats downriver.  The salmon slips into the nearby deeper water, soon to return.  Her redd is now a tad shallower, a tad readier for her eggs. 

Suddenly two long, dark form zoom in, one chasing the other.  I assume it is two males, one defending the area from the intrusion of the other.  Males hang out near the redd waiting for the female to deposit her eggs into the gravel.  He’ll move in and release copious quantities of ‘milk,’ his sperm.  The fertilized eggs with overwinter in the spaces between the gravel and hatch in the spring.  The tiny fish stay in the fresh water river for a couple of years before entering the ocean for another year to two.  Those that survive will return as mature fish, return to their natal stream to spawn and die.
The ghostly grey body of a spawned out salmon lies nearby, hung up on a cluster of rock.  Another floats by, rigid in death, yet on one last journey.  Soon his parts will be the parts of others.  Perhaps a hungry crayfish will feed on him, a bass will feed on the crayfish’s offspring, a great blue heron will eat the bass … and so life continues on.  Salmon are programed to die after spawning -- a natural part of their cycle of life.

Those clouds racing above are reaching down to me.  A gust of wind interrupts the fall stillness and scatters great handfuls of leaves onto the stream.  Then the air stills again.  A Stellar’s jay flies over, an acorn grasped in its bill.   I savor this fall day.


  1. Thanks again for a lesson in nature, I had no idea the salmon died after spawning.

  2. Fascinating post. I didn't realize they stayed away from the ocean so long.

  3. So fun to see in action! Thanks for the lessons:)

  4. Reading this, I found myself holding my breath. Thank you for sharing this day.