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Finding Fish at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery

09/27/2016 11:00AM ● By Laura Christman

Salmon Saga

October 2016
By Laura Christman
Photos by Erin Claassen

It’s an upstream battle: Every autumn, slippery salmon strongly swim some 280 miles from San Francisco Bay to Shasta County.

The salmon saga is a treasured part of the North State narrative. Coleman National Fish Hatchery – the largest federal hatchery in the nation – celebrates the fall run of Chinook in a big way with the Return of the Salmon Festival. It runs from 9 am to 4 pm on Oct. 15 at the hatchery on Battle Creek, 20 miles southeast of Redding. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fun and fishy festival, which is free and includes displays, activities and the chance to view hatchery operations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatchery was established in 1942 after construction of Shasta and Keswick dams blocked migrating fish from spawning areas on the Sacramento, Pit and McCloud rivers.

“We’re here to mitigate for the loss of that spawning habitat,” explains Brett Galyean, acting project leader at Coleman. Salmon play a significant role in nature as a food source for birds, bears, orcas, seals and other creatures. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing are important to people and the economy. 

Coleman raises 14 million fish each year, mostly salmon, but the mix includes 600,000 steelhead – rainbow trout that migrate. The hatchery has a spawning facility, incubators, tanks and rearing raceways. Larval fish known as alevin emerge from eggs, grow into fry and then become smolt. The 3-inch-long fish are released into Battle Creek to make their way to the Pacific Ocean, where they live a few years before heading back to their birthplace to spawn.

A lot can happen on the way to the ocean, out in the ocean and on the trip back up the Sacramento River. Only a small percentage of fish return to Battle Creek, a tributary of the river, to fling themselves up the hatchery fish ladder and complete the cycle.

“We’re aiming for a 1 percent return,” Galyean says.

A fall run of 25,000 to 30,000 salmon is typical, he says. But he estimates fewer than 20,000 salmon will come back to Coleman this year. That’s because fish in the return group should include those released during the drought when many were trucked to Rio Vista in the Bay Area due to North State waters flowing too slowly, low and warm.

“Unfortunately, not all those fish will return,” Galyean says. “You have to remember that back in 2014 we weren’t facing many good choices.”

While the fish numbers are likely to be lower, the Return of the Salmon Festival is expected to draw lots of people. The festival’s reach goes beyond the North State. An episode of “California Gold” showcasing Coleman continues to play on public television and brings statewide attention to the hatchery. As many as 6,000 visitors can show up for the festival, Galyean says. 

The focus is fun and learning. “We’re trying to educate the public on salmon and natural resources in the North State,” Galyean says. 

Those attending get an inside look at spawning operations. They can watch salmon weighing 20 pounds or more jumping up the fish ladder or be splashed by leaping lunkers in holding tanks. Children’s activities include opportunities to learn about salmon, meet Landon the Salmon (a costumed character) or paint a salmon.

Natural resources agencies and organizations will have displays and activities. Parking and free bus shuttles are at Walmart Supercenter on Rhonda Road in Anderson.

If you miss the festival, that’s no reason to miss out on the fall fish. The autumn run usually goes through October and into early November. Coleman is open to the public from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm daily for self-guided tours, with spawning operations typically from 9 am to 3 pm Tuesdays and Thursdays in October (Galyean suggests calling ahead for any changes to times or operations).

Another option is Battle Creek Salmon Trail. It’s a good place to see sizeable salmon swimming up the creek in autumn. The two-mile, one-way interpretive trail connects the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Battle Creek Wildlife Area to Coleman Hatchery. The trailhead is just west of the hatchery off Coleman Fish Hatchery Road.

24411 Coleman Fish Hatchery Road in Anderson

(530) 365-8622 •