Every year, tens of thousands of salmon make their way through the Ballard Locks, through Lake Washington and into tributaries, returning to the same streams where they were born years before.
The current salmon run stretches from September through early November, during which returning Chinook and coho salmon can now be seen at the Friends of the Issaquah Hatchery said executive director Robin Kelley.
“Right now is a great time to see the Chinook, which is also called the king salmon, which is the larger of the two salmon we have here,” she said.
The salmon are returning to their spawning streams after two to five years in the ocean and some reach sizes of up to 20 pounds. Once they return, the adult fish lay eggs and die. Every Tuesday during the salmon run, the hatchery catches returning adult salmon and harvests the eggs and male milt, mixes them together, which fertilizes the eggs and places them in a hatchery incubator. When they grow into smolt, the fish are released into Issaquah Creek where they eventually find their way to the ocean.
Kelley said while the salmon are returning they lose interest in everything else, including eating, focusing entirely on navigating their way through rivers, fish ladders and streams. During their journey, the fish must make it through shallow water, rocks, logs and predators like seals and sea lions. Many of the fish return with banged up faces and often missing noses.
“Their only goal is to get back and spawn,” she said.
The hatchery is open to the public seven days a week during daylight hours and visitors can see the salmon work their way through fish ladders and into Issaquah Creek. Some of these salmon are siphoned off by the hatchery to provide eggs for the hatchery and the rest are left to lay their eggs naturally.
Fish enthusiasts need not travel all the way to Issaquah to see the fish in action, though. King County runs a salmon viewing website with around 20 places where people can pop in to view the fish as they migrate. These include locations in Redmond, Bothell, Bellevue and beyond. The Sammamish River Trail runs along the Sammamish River from the lake to Bothell and features many bridges that can be good places to view the fish. A full list of locations can be found at the Salmon SEEson webpage.
Native salmon of all stripes have seen population declines in recent decades. In 1983 there were an estimated 550 naturally spawning Chinook salmon in the region, reaching low points of 33 salmon in 1996 and 2011. Other varieties of salmon — including the Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon, a unique fresh-water variety of salmon that spends its entire life in the lake — have been hit hard as well. Lake Washington is home to coho, sockeye, Chinook and kokanee salmon.
King County as well as cities and the state have been making improvements to salmon habitats, including restoring wooded areas along rivers, stream and lakes and by building pavement that allows water to pass through it, among other things.