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Harmony on the river: Chinook salmon and boaters coexist on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Amy Baumer
Office of Communication

Resource specialists, in a raft on the river,  are conducting a work survey.
Resource specialists conduct a redd survey on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River; Salmon-Challis National Forest.  USDA Forest Service Photo

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River originates at the confluence of Marsh and Bear Valley Creeks in central Idaho near Stanley. The wild and scenic river winds 104 miles to where it eventually meets with the main Salmon River in the heart of the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states.

A cool river flowing in the midst of the hot and dry climate of central Idaho, the river experience draws more than 10,000 people from around the world each year. Floaters move down the river on rafts, kayaks, and other watercraft aided by the calm, cool water current and the excitement of roaring class III+ and IV rapids.  Boaters drift past the scenic beauty of alpine forests and high mountain deserts, where they can enjoy catch-and-release fishing for a variety of species, observe many different wildlife species, catch a glimpse of past inhabitants, and even soak in natural hot springs.

The crystal-clear waters not only attract people, the river is also home to the threatened Chinook salmon. In fact, the Middle Fork contains one of the last natural populations of Chinook salmon which has not been genetically altered by hatchery fish. The salmon travel more than 800 miles upstream to spawn in the river.

A picture of the river from up above looking down at a raft and the river's water.
Chinook salmon redd on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River; Salmon-Challis National Forest; USDA Forest Service Photo by Christine Stewart.

The salmon spawn when water levels are lower, and their presence along with the boaters creates challenges for managers. Managers must balance the popularity of the river with the need to preserve the spawning areas it provides for the salmon, as well as habitat for a myriad of other native fish species that call the river home.

“One of the concerns in fish management on the Middle Fork is the simultaneous occurrence of people floating the river and the spawning Chinook salmon,” said Christine Stewart, fish biologist on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. “When river flows are naturally reduced during the spawning season in August and September, boaters are more likely to encounter spawning salmon and have the potential to impact either the spawning adults or displace newly placed eggs in a spawning nest, known as redds.”

A picture of small swimming in a river.
Chinook salmon on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River; Salmon-Challis National Forest; USDA Forest Service Photo by Christine Stewart

During spawning season, Forest Service resource specialists, in collaboration with Idaho Department of Fish and Game, float down the river to conduct weekly surveys of redds. They identify and mark the redds so recreational boaters can move as far away as safely possible when passing by, often to the opposite side of the river.

“It is important that boaters know where the redds are located on the river so they can try to avoid them,” said Stewart.  “If the redds are disturbed, it can kill or displace the eggs at a sensitive developmental stage.  When boaters avoid the redds, more eggs have a higher probability of surviving, with more fry emerging the following March to become adult salmon.”

In addition to surveying and marking the redds, each season a team of natural resource and recreation specialists join forces with other partners to ensure boaters are informed and educated before heading down the river. The Middle Fork Outfitters Association, one such partner, contributes volunteers to help educate boaters and the community on salmon spawning.  River checkers brief each boater before launching, which includes a fisheries component that informs boaters on how to avoid disrupting the spawning salmon.

This combination of public education, surveying and marking redds, and close monitoring of spawning habitat has made a real difference. Stewart has been involved in the management of the Middle Fork since 2013. Over time, she has seen the positive impact on the river firsthand.

A close-up picture of a Chinook salmon.

“These days, people are extremely respectful of Chinook salmon and their spawning locations and work to understand how the redds are marked so they can avoid them while on the river,” said Stewart.  “The Forest and its partners have made huge progress in the management of the river and Chinook salmon.”

To learn more about the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, visit the Forest Service website.  For information about how to obtain a permit to float the Middle Fork, visit the website.  See the following Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game websites to learn more about hiking, fishing, and hunting in and around the Middle Fork.