Snagging Sockeye in Idaho’s Red Lakes

1912-6-NationalSportsmanFrtCvrNational Sportsman, June, 1912. Dr DeWitt Higgs, Soldier, Idaho, describes a fishing trip to Alturas Lake in Idaho’s Saw Tooth Mountains in August 1910 or 1909 or a year or two earlier. The year of the trip is important because it may have been the very LAST time that the stream feeding into Alturas Lake was choked with spawning sockeye salmon. Lakes Alturas, Pettit, Redfish, Stanley, and Yellowbelly all feed into the South Fork of the Salmon River. These five Saw Tooth Lakes are known as the Red Fish Lakes due to the annual spawning migrations of bright red sockeye salmon.

Soldier, now listed as a ghost town, is located a few miles north of Fairfield, Idaho. Dr Higgs and his wife and two children were joined by his friend, Jim Crow and his wife and baby on this rustic fishing trip into the Idaho wilderness. The vacationers took the train from Gooding, ID, to Hailey where a guide met them with “a two-seated rig and a road wagon”. From Hailey they traveled through Ketchum (Sun Valley), described as a dilapidated old mining town, and then up the Big Wood River valley where they camped above Galena, a deserted mining camp. The next morning they crossed Galena’s summit and moved down into the South Fork of the Salmon River where they made camp on the upper end of Alturas Lake.

Their first morning fishing in the lake was disappointing. A local sheep herder passed by and told them that the best fishing was above the lake where the annual run of red fish was always underway on the fourth day of August. He also showed them how to snag a fish from the spawning mob. The next morning they yanked over 300 salmon out of the stream in a couple hours.

The Sunbeam Mining Company began constructing the Sunbeam Dam across the Salmon River in 1909. Records varied about whether the dam was completed in 1910 or 1913. Time has smudged the actual dates of the fishing trip and completion of the dam but it’s interesting to read about what the fishery was like before the Sunbeam Dam.

Sportsmen were upset about the dam which blocked salmon access to spawning areas. In 1920 the Idaho Department of Fish & Game constructed an unsuccessful fish ladder around Sunbeam Dam. By the 1930s public outcry forced politicians and the Idaho Fish & Game to take action. Here again the records seem unclear. One report indicates that sportsmen tried to blow the dam using dynamite on a raft in 1930. Another reported that the Idaho Fish & Game had the bank blasted out next to the barrier in 1934. Maybe both are right. Restoration efforts have continued since the fish ladder in 1920 and are ongoing. Some salmon have returned to the area but it is unlikely the magic that Dr Higgs reported in National Sportsman will ever be seen again.

Here are some links for more information on the Red Lakes salmon fishery. No fishing for sockeye salmon in Idaho. Thanks for adding your comments on salmon recovery in Idaho’s Red Lakes. Scroll down to the update from Idaho Department of Fish & Game added 1/2/13

Outdoor History Matters! – –
Here are some ads from National Sportsman, June 1912


added 1/2/13

Over time, names and local references to landmarks, change. I can’t offer corrections but will add some present day terminology. What is referred to as the “South Fork Salmon” in the article is actually the main or headwaters of the Salmon River. The South Fork Salmon River, as recognized in 2013, is located near the town of Yellowpine, ID. Probably the closest recognizable town is Cascade, Idaho which is about 50 miles to the southwest of the South Fork Salmon River.

The story regarding removal of the Sunbeam Dam has several versions – depending on your source. The story goes that a number of miners did attempt using a boat loaded with explosives to remove the dam – but produced nothing but “noise and a big splash.” This was in the early 1930’s. The dam was eventually removed once water rights and dam ownership issues were resolved and the structure condemned. Actual decommissioning and taking the dam down to the present level was not completed until the 1960’s.

Idaho used to have tremendous runs of sockeye in several parts of the state. Stories of huge numbers of sockeye in tributaries to Payette Lake making so much noise with their splashing that people couldn’t sleep or scaring horses because fish were so tightly packed into streams that they looked like “one large moving red snake” are just a couple of tales local residents tell hearing from distant relatives. Snagging 300 sockeye back in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s is plausible.

Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game has been actively working to restore sockeye to the Stanley Basin. One of the complicating factors is that sockeye in the Stanley Basin migrate farther than any other known sockeye population in the world. In the 1980’s, we attempted to augment the Stanley Basin sockeye with sockeye fry taken from Babine Lake in northern British Columbia. No fish were documented returning to Idaho from this attempt. Late in 2013, we will be completing construction of a new fish hatchery capable of producing 1,000,000 sockeye fry to be stocked in the Stanley Basin lakes. Although, it may take several years to build returning adult sockeye numbers to the level that we reach full capacity of the hatchery, we are optimistic. Our adult run in 2011 exceeded 1,500 adults and we expect returns to continue improving. This is a considerable enhancement over a decade ago when one, lone male sockeye completed the journey to the Stanley Basin. We used cryogenics to preserve his sperm and fertilize the next year’s returning females. You could say that he is now the present-day grandfather to all returning Idaho sockeye.

Dave Parrish
Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game
Sport Fishing Program Coordinator

About Bob

Retired natural resource professional.
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One Response to Snagging Sockeye in Idaho’s Red Lakes

  1. Craig Springer says:

    History matters, for sure. Knowing the past, informs the future.

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