Salmon connoisseurs the world over know that wild spring Chinook salmon (Springers) are among the most delicious things that the ocean has to offer. Karuk, Yurok, and Hoopa fishermen prize spring Chinook as their high oil content makes them especially flavorful when smoked and kippered, or simply made into jerky, which is known in the Orleans area as ‘Karuk Candy.’

Springers return to their natal rivers in early spring, taking advantage of the high flows provided by the spring melt, to reach areas high up in the watershed that are typically impassable to their fall-run cousins who return when flows have subsided.

Once arriving cold water refuges in the watershed’s upper reaches, Springers wait out the summer months, giving their reproductive organs time to mature. They then spawn in the fall and die a natural death, leaving their nitrogen-rich carcasses to fertilize inland forests.

Because Springers require cold water areas high up in their natal watershed, they are particularly vulnerable to dams and diversions. In the Klamath, around 90% of the historic Springer habitat is currently blocked by dams and diversions. Most of what’s left is in the Salmon River and South Fork Trinity drainages. The fish are so few in number these days that teams of volunteers snorkel local rivers each year, counting by hand the fish holding at the mouths of cold mountain creeks.

Tragically, the counts reveal that wild spring Chinook number only in hundreds. Unless something changes soon, we could witness their extirpation from the Klamath.

One of the obstacles in protecting these iconic fish is that regulatory agencies treat spring and fall Chinook as one and the same. This is because geneticists have had a difficult time explaining how they are different at the DNA level. However, a team of researchers from UC Davis led by Dr. Michael Miller and Dr. Tasha Thompson have recently rewritten Spring Chinook’s evolutionary history by finding DNA differences between the spring and fall fish.

More on this and what it means in next week’s post!

For a deeper dive on Spring Chinook, check out the Wild Salmon Center’s special online report First Salmon, Last Chance .