Salmon Spawning Run at Lake Tahoe

When autumn arrives in the High Sierra and the beaches of Lake Tahoe shed their summer coat of sunbathers, something remarkable happens in a little creek about five miles south of Emerald Bay.

At the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, you can take a short stroll along an easy trail to the gravel banks of one of Lake Tahoe’s many small tributary streams.

Here, nearly everywhere you look, you’ll see hundreds of spawning kokanee salmon filling the shallows.

The kokanee — also known as landlocked sockeye — were introduced to Tahoe in the 1940s. Every year, tens of thousands of mature fish find their way out of the cold depths of the lake and up Taylor Creek to mate and die.

Although more than 60 streams feed Lake Tahoe, the great majority of kokanee — around 95 percent — are born and spawn in Taylor Creek, which has a silt-free flow and well-sorted gravel beds that provide good conditions for the salmon to create their nests, called redds.

Farther down the path, you’ll enter what’s called the stream profile chamber, a small museum with a bank of tall windows where you can watch what’s going on beneath the surface of Taylor Creek.

With so many sex-crazed fish confined in a shallow creek, you would expect to see natural predators attracted by the easy pickings and you would be right.

You may encounter a California black bear crossing the stream or the trail and you should keep well away if you do — but don’t run. Black bears (whose fur is often blond or brown, despite their name) would much rather fish than fight and you don’t want to distract them from that purpose.

The salmon you see here in October will be long-dead when their small-fry progeny emerge from the gravel in February.

After years spent swimming free in the boundless depths of Lake Tahoe, they’re biologically driven to make the fatal trip up their river of no return to go out in a blaze of crimson glory, an appropriate fate in this season of color and melancholy.


Taylor Creek Visitor Center