The Stream Doctor

February 10th, 2003

Your questions and answers about everything stream related.

Q. From Ray in California...:When a salmon or steelhead cannot return to it's original spawning ground due to not enough water in the system, what happens? Does it spawn somewhere nearby? Not at all? The Shasta and Scott Rivers here in Northern California will not get the allotted water needed for returning spawners this year. Where will these fish go?

A. Returning spawners that can't reach their natal stream, will usually attempt to spawn in any nearby suitable reach of stream or river. In fact, there is a fairly large "stray rate" of fish that can't reach their original spawning sites; they either drop down lower in the stream to spawn or even spawn in other nearby streams. A good example of this was seen after the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Returning fish in the Toutle River found many things blocking their way - adverse water quality, physical obstruction, etc. These fish dropped down and entered other tributaries to spawn.

Spawning salmon will obviously die regardless of whether they spawn successfully in their parent stream or other tributaries. Steelhead, however, may also reabsorb the sex products (eggs and sperm) if they don't spawn elsewhere before returning downstream. I'd like to acknowledge Dr. Peter Bisson's help with the response to this question.

~ C. E. (Bert) Cushing, aka Streamdoctor
105 W. Cherokee Dr.
Estes Park, CO 80517
Phone: 970-577-1584

The 'Stream Doctor' is a retired professional stream ecologist and author, now living in the West and spending way too much time fly-fishing. You are invited to submit questions relating to anything stream related directly to him for use in this Q & A Feature at

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