"[T]here was great joy with the natives last night in consequence of the arrival of the Salmon; one of those fish was caught; this was the harbinger of good news to them. They informed us that these fish would arrive in great quantities in the course of about 5 days. this fish was dressed and being divided into small peices was given to each child in the village. this custom is founded in a supersticiuos opinion that it will hasten the arrival of the Salmon." -- Meriwether Lewis
Near the Dalles and all along the Columbia River, the Corps of Discovery witnessed a salmon economy in full swing. Salmon were at the end of their seasonal upstream surge and the Native Americans in the area had all the fish they could want and enough to trade. Clark noted wooden houses where half the rooms were devoted to dried salmon and estimated that stacks on nearby rocks contained 10,000 pounds of fish.
Even more frequently than they commented on the amount of salmon, though, the explorers mentioned the rough, surging currents that made canoeing a challenge. This was the key to the salmon's abundance; they thrived in the pure water and rapid rivers that characterized the Columbia River basin.
The five salmon species in the Pacific Northwest-chum, chinook, sockeye, pink, and coho-are all members of the genus Oncorhynchus. Greek for "hooked snout," Oncorhynchus describes the bent nose and twisted jaw male salmon develop by the time they spawn. Steelhead joined the Oncorhynchus genus when they were determined to be closely related to Pacific salmon.
The basic elements of the life histories of Pacific salmon are similar. Born in streambeds in gravel nests called redds, they gradually make their way to the ocean, transferring from freshwater to salt. They spend most of their lives at sea, often heading far offshore from the California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington river mouths where they started, up to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Eventually they return, smelling their way back, fighting the current and leaping waterfalls to reach the streams where they were born. Exhausted by the trip, they die after mating and laying eggs, creating another generation to feed people and wildlife, economies and ecosystems.
Of course, each of these species has unique attributes as well. Some spend hardly any time in the ocean; others stay for many years. In appearance, they range from the spotted chinook or king salmon that can reach up to 120 pounds to the streamlined sockeye that turns brilliant red as it heads upstream to spawn.
Populations of fish from each spawning area are unique, too. In a feat of navigation equal to that of the explorers, sockeye that historically spawned in Redfish Lake in central Idaho traveled 900 miles upstream to spawn. Unfortunately, where they once plied wild rivers like Lewis and Clark, now they must cross dam after dam. In the four years between 1993 and 1997, only ten sockeye returned to Redfish, their namesake lake.