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Tahoe's drama of the kokanee.

Each autumn, from late September through mid-October, one of biology's clocks sounds an irresistible alarm. Mature kokanee salmon, transformed from a silver-blue color to a fiery vermilion, twist their narrowing way upstream from Lake Tahoe to spawn in the gravels of Taylor Creek, near South Lake Tahoe. The sight of the blazing salmon draws many spectators, who can observe the fish at close range in several places. The kokanee's commitment to its nature is compelling. People tend to stop for a brief look, then become transfixed.

Introduced to the lake in 1944. this fish is a landlocked version of the oceangoing sockeye. Lake anglers call it silversides, for its fight as well as its flash. But as these salmon reach about 3 years of age, they are overcome by a call set deep in their genes, and begin to move toward the stream where they hatched.

As they go, their bodies turn from willow leaf-shaped to humpbacked. Hormone changes inflame their skin. Their flesh goes mushy and their stomachs resorb. The males develop strange new teeth along suddenly protuberant lower jaws; some even grow teeth on their tongues. Finally, after days of struggle, little more than moving carcasses, they spawn. Then they die, a feast for gatherings of mink, bears, and plunging bald eagles.

To view this drama, stop by the U.S. Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Visitors Center during the annual Kokanee Salmon Festival, October 3 and 4, for short naturalist-guided walks, or go on your own anytime through the third week in October. Pick up brochures at the center. Then follow the self-guiding Rainbow Trail to the Stream Profile Chamber, a windowed underground room with a view of the kokanee. Leaving the chamber, follow a gravel path (not the Rainbow Trail) to the bridge to watch pairs of salmon select egg-laying sites and spawn.

To reach the center from South Lake Tahoe, take U.S. 50 southwest 2 miles, then take State 89 west 3 miles.


This is a mellow time to be in south Tahoe: off-season, uncrowded, and peaceful. The warm days and cool nights keep sugars in the willow and aspen leaves, lending a golden glow to the surroundings.

Tallac Historic Site, a cluster of summer estates from early in the century, is adjacent to the visitor center and has 3/4 mile of beach for swimming and picnicking. The grand old properties--among them a museum and an events center--are definitely worth a look.

For lodging help, call (800) 288-2463. Of the many good choices, we especially liked old-timey Richardson's Resort, where we had a comfortable lakefront unit within easy walking distance of both Tallac and Taylor Creek, for less than $100; call (916) 541-1801. The resort has boat and bike rentals, a sandy beach, and a dock. Through October, it offers a beginners-welcome kokanee kayak tour; call (916) 544-2011.
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Title Annotation:Lake Tahoe; kokanee salmon
Author:Williamson, Marcia
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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