Four Different Salmon

Without human beings, salmon have no names, but because we are able to distinguish one from another, their differences have become words and, to some of us, a litany."1 They're American words, Indian words transformed by folk etymologies, Greek words, Russian words.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark observed and described four fish belonging to the Salmonid family that were previously unknown to scientists, and that were basic foods for thousands upon thousands of Indians west of the Rockies, but also for grizzly bears on the west slope of the Bitterroot Mountains. The explorers' perceptions were necessarily incomplete, since they saw these fish for brief periods and only at certain times of the year, yet they were generally accurate as far as they went.

These four fish are anadromous (from the Greek for "running up") spending their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean, then literally sniffing their way up coastal rivers, fighting rapids and leaping falls as much as fifteen feet high, until they reach their natal nesting places. There the females dig pits in gravely places, the males fertilize the eggs with their milt, and the females cover the eggs with gravel. The new salmon, called fry, hatch in from 60 to 200 days, depending on the temperature of the water. After eating the yoke of the egg sac in which they were born, the fry wriggle out of their gravel nests to find more food, and their own great, mysterious, miraculous journey begins.

As they work their way upriver, the silvery Pacific salmon change color, and the males gradually develop hooked noses (oncorhynchus is a Greek word meaning "hooked [onkos] nose [rhynchos]"), then both parents die. Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and Atlantic salmon (of the genus Salmo), however, may spawn several times before their demise.

Lewis and Clark saw their first salmon soon after crossing divide into the Lemhi River valley, where the Shoshones lived, and enjoyed the meat roasted, boiled or dried. They immediately made important contributions to the forthcoming science of ethnobiology with their detailed descriptions and drawings of the Indians' fish traps (wiers) and spearing (gigging) techniques.

They were astonished at the numbers of salmon they saw upon their arrival at the Columbia River on October 18, 1805. "We Saw a great many dead Sammon floating in the River," wrote Sergeant John Ordway, "and Saw the living jumping verry thick." Clark added that "the number of dead Salmon on the Shores & floating in the river is incrediable to say." Ignorant of the species' life cycle, none of the journalists ventured any theories about what they saw, and evidently heard no explanations from the Indians. In fact, Lewis assumed the salmon run was related to the stage of spring runoff. At Camp Chopunnish on June 2, 1806, he wrote:

I begin to lose all hope of any dependence on the Salmon as this river will not fall sufficiently to take them before we shall leave it, and as yet I see no appearance of their runing near the shores as the indians informed us they would in the course of a few days.

He was in a tight spot:

I find that all the salmon which they procure themselves they obtain on Lewis's river, and the distance thither is too geat for us to think of sending after them even had we merchandize with which to purchase.

For Further Reading:

Raymond Burroughs, ed., The Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2nd ed., with a new introduction by Robert Carriker; East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

Paul Russell Cutright, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

Andy Lamb and Phil Edgell, Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest (Madiera Park, B.C., Canada: Harbour Publishing, 1986).

Dan Landeen and Allen Pinkham, Salmon and His People: Fish & Fishing in Nez Perce Culture (Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1999).

  • 1. Tom Jay and Brad Matsen, Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1994), p. 47.