by Eric Ettlinger
Coho salmon generally wait for the first rains of fall before migrating from the ocean into Lagunitas Creek to spawn. Occasionally a few Chinook salmon will spawn before any significant rain, but spawning season really gets underway with the rains. So after seven inches of rain fell at the end of October, raising stream flows to a near-record level for the month, I was eager to see some big fish returning to the creek. On Halloween I got a report of a single spawner, possibly a Chinook, swimming in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. MMWD biologists conducted our first spawner surveys on November 2 and 3, but didn’t find that fish or any others. We surveyed again on November 10, after another good rain, and a third time on November 17. We’ve yet to see a single spawner, or any sign that salmon have started spawning.
This slow start to the spawning season is particularly disappointing since I’m hearing reports that over 2,000 Chinook and small numbers of coho salmon have already returned to the Russian River. After two years of exceptionally small coho runs, I’m anxious to see our coho run bounce back. Ocean conditions have improved dramatically in the last two years, so survival of salmon smolts (the young fish migrating from the creek to the ocean) should also have improved. Over 6,000 coho smolts left Lagunitas Creek during the spring of 2009, which we believe may be close to an upper limit for how many smolts the watershed can produce. The surviving members of that large cohort should be returning to the creek now. Hopefully the salmon have just been taking their time, waiting for a rainstorm like the one we had this weekend, before making their move. MMWD and National Park Service biologists will be back in the creeks to find out, as soon as the water recedes.