October 7, 2016 at 4:33am
You’ve probably heard of “Free Willy,” well, how about “Free salmon?”
It’s that time of year on Joint Base Lewis-McChord: the time to fill your belly and your freezer with the free salmon available now at the Clear Creek Fish Hatchery near the East Gate at JBLM.
Each year, 3.4 million Chinook smolts (baby salmon) are released at the hatchery. Every fall, when the Chinook salmon return to the waters of their youth, thousands of fish return, most three or four years after being released, to die. The eggs the fish carry are harvested before the fish die on their own. Those salmon are then distributed at the hatchery.
After leaving as smolts, many of the fish swam into the Pacific Ocean, avoided killer whales and other predators, and some even traveled north as far as the waters of Alaska before returning home to Clear Creek.
This year, the annual salmon giveaway wasn’t well-publicized as the projected number of salmon expected to return to the hatchery was fairly low — about 6,000 fish; however, that wasn’t the case, according to Shane Bryant, a biologist for the Nisqually Indian Tribe. The tribe operates the hatchery on what was formerly reservation land.
“We got a bumper crop of salmon this year,” Bryant said, of the nearly 23,000 salmon already processed in the past few weeks. “Our creek is full (of salmon) and we’re still going,” he said.
The salmon giveaway began the last week of September and will continue every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday through Oct. 14 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or whenever the last of the salmon return.
Bill St. Jean, enhancement program manager for the Nisqually Indian Tribe, oversees both the Clear Creek and Kalama Creek hatcheries for the tribe. The Kalama Creek Hatchery is a smaller facility on the other side of the river, down from the Red Wind Casino. The Kalama Creek Hatchery also is offering free salmon this year on Wednesdays.
Though one might consider the thousands of salmon a blessing, the bounty this year is a bit too bountiful.
In previous years, the lines of people excited to receive their quota were limited to two salmon per vehicle, unless the driver went to the end of the line and waited for, if quantity warranted, another two fish. This year, there are no lines due the “bumper crop,” according to Bryant.
St. Jean said he’s hoping there are lines in the coming days, so the slew of salmon don’t go to waste.
“I’m (harvesting) 800 to 1,000 fish today.” he said. “I’ve given away 1,000 (in the past week), but I should have given away 10,000; I hate to bury them.”
The salmon range in size from one or two pounds to upward of 25 or 30 pounds, St. Jean said.
“They’re not prime, but all the meat and protein is there,” he said.
Most of the fish given away are males. The salmon are sorted at the hatchery and eggs removed from the females. Eggs are used at the hatchery or sold for caviar, St. Jean said. With all the jobs to be done in the process, volunteers are needed for fish processing, according to St. Jean.
A group of North Thurston High School students is currently learning about salmon through volunteering. There also are several older volunteers, most retirees, such as Wilbur Johnson, who has been a volunteer at the hatchery for the past 15 years. He’s a two time retiree, after 30 years in the Army and 23 years with the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.
Johnson didn’t seem to mind the strong smell of salmon in the air as he sorted and moved along slick, smooth fish on a conveyor belt-style machine Tuesday morning.
Although Johnson doesn’t take home fish for himself — he said he doesn’t care for salmon — he planned to take a cooler full of fish at the end of the day to neighbors and a friend at his local post office. He also smoked several salmon in a previous year and mailed that to his son, who was then serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
“Smoking it is the way to go,” he said.
Tony Flores, of Graham, also opts to smoke much of the salmon he takes home.
“I smoke some and I cut up some for barbecues,” he said. “Then, I put some in the freezer. You could have fish all year long if you did that.”
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