Aside from being one of the healthiest and most delicious fish in the ocean the Oncorhynchus nerka salmon, or more commonly known as the Sockeye Salmon, are extremely fun to catch! Sockeyes are a hard fighting salmon that have been known to break rods and hearts. Growing up to over 2.5 feet long and weighing up to 20lbs., Sockeye salmon are pound for pound one of the most aggressive fighting salmons. Once hooked and the fight begins they will take you into your backing several times and fight you all the way to the net! At Alaska Rainbow Lodge our guides love hunting Sockeyes almost as much as chasing down Rainbows and are always excited to get you hooked into them as well.
Sockeye play an intricate role in the Bristol Bay ecosystem by not only bending your rods and filling your freezers with delicious meat, but by nourishing everything in the watersheds they inhabit. Most Sockeye Salmon are hatched in rivers that are fed by a lake where they travel to after hatching. They will feed and grow until big enough to make one of the greatest migratory journeys ever! As the juvenile sockeye (smolt) make their way from the lakes downstream towards the ocean, rainbow trout lay in wait and gorge on them and fatten up as the sockeye swim by. Whales and seals wait at the Bay to greet the small salmon fry as they make their way into the saltwater. They spend 3 years in the ocean surviving, eating zooplankton and growing until returning to the freshwater rivers. These persistent and powerful fish will travel up to 1600km (that’s almost 1,000 miles!) to spawn in the same riverbeds where they were hatched in.
After navigating their way through the waiting belugas, seals, and commercial fishermen nets they enter the freshwater where their digestive system begins to shut down and they stop feeding. Driven solely by the need to spawn they push on upstream over waterfalls, past bears and eagles which will line the banks of the rivers and also fatten up on them for the upcoming winter months. Changing from a bright chrome color to a red with a green head, from lack of nutrients and proteins from not eating, they make an easier target for wildlife to feed on. It’s during this pre spawn transformation that the sockeye begin to get their “zombie fish” characteristics and their migration finally begins to slow down. Eagles will swoop down and snatch up the Sockeye carrying it away to its nest dropping scraps of flesh into the tundra, giving plants, trees, mice, shrews and other living things the nutrients they need to survive.
It’s at this point in the journey that they begin to pair up and prepare to spawn. The female sockeye will rub the bottom of the river creating a bed in the gravel, that we call redds, for her eggs to nestle in. Once the eggs are dispersed into the Redd that was dug out by the female, the male will cover the eggs in sperm. Once the spawn is complete the sockeye will die in the rivers where their corpses will float down and provide even more nutrition for the wildlife and fauna in the area. Trout will gobble up any loose floating eggs and flesh from the dead sockeye and Bears will eat the carcasses as they float to the edges of the rivers. 3 to 6 weeks later the eggs will hatch and so begins another lifecycle of the Oncorhynchus nerka salmon!
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