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Free salmon

At the Nisqually Clear Creek Hatchery

The free salmon giveaway by the Nisqually Indian Tribe at the Clear Creek Hatchery. Photo by Marguerite Cleveland

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Each year, when the salmon begin their long journey back to their birth stream, the Nisqually Clear Creek Hatchery kicks into high gear processing the Chinook salmon for their sperm and eggs. It has been a tradition for more than 20 years for the Nisqually Tribe to give away the excess fish. This usually begins the third or fourth Tuesday in September and takes place each Tuesday for three weeks depending on the size of the run. This event is hugely popular.

Here are some tips for snagging your own salmon:

1. After salmon leave salt water and enter fresh water, they stop eating, and the quality of the meat changes. Most consider it good just for smoking and canning although others eat it. Just know it will have a different texture and quality than restaurant-quality salmon.

2. The easiest way to get to the hatchery is to go through the Mounts Road Gate, which you can reach from I-5 exit 116. You won't be able to access from the base because the traffic is inbound in the mornings. Once through the gate, you come to a T-intersection. Take a right and follow the gravel road. The hatchery usually puts out signs, but if not, there is a permanent green sign further down indicating the right turn to the hatchery.

3. The event typically runs from 8 a.m. to noon. Plan to arrive at least one hour before the start of the giveaway. Why so early? There is an extremely steep hill that leads down to the hatchery. The later you arrive the less likely you are to park close to the hatchery on the flat ground. The average weight of a Chinook salmon is 10-50 pounds and some weigh over 100 pounds. That is a lot of weight to lug back up the hill.

4. Plan to bring either a cooler on wheels or some heavy-weight black trash bags. The salmon are big and messy. Some people bring chairs for the wait and you may want snacks and coffee. The workers and volunteers begin setting up at 8 a.m., but it is after 9 a.m. before they start giving away the first salmon. Portable facilities are available for rest rooms. Each person receives two fish. You can get in line as many times as you like and come back each week if you want to. Soldiers in uniform are given front-of-the-line privileges.

5. Judge your squeamishness. The process can appear violent as the female Chinook are whacked on the head with a baseball bat before they are slit open to get the eggs. The male fish are milked for their sperm which looks pretty gross. The workers and volunteers will have blood on their protective clothing. It is not as bloody as I expected but if you are squeamish or have small children (although the children I saw did not seem bothered by the process) it may not be the event for you.

To find out information about the annual event, visit The JBLM official Facebook page usually posts when the event will begin as well. 

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