Hells Canyon Dam nor the Hells Canyon Complex of dams deserve the blame for the extirpation of the three salmon runs of the North Fork of the Payette River, that black mark belongs to Black Canyon Dam and in truth an earlier irrigation dam at the same location on the Payette River not far from Emmett, Idaho.
Each year before Black Canyon Dam's construction in 1924, runs of steelhead, Chinook and sockeye salmon traveled up the Columbia River 325 miles to the Snake River where they make a right turn and swim another 365 miles to the confluence of the Snake and Payette rivers at Payette, Idaho. Then they swam another 62 miles up the Payette River to the North Fork of the Payette River where they would swim north into Long Valley. The North Fork of the Payette River stretches about 113 miles from the Salmon River Mountains down to Banks, Idaho where it meets up with the South Fork of the Payette River. Salmon would utilize about 90 miles of the North Fork. Some would go up Gold Fork Creek and a few others went up Lake Fork Creek and others swam to the river below Payette Lake and others swam into the lake and spawned in the North Fork of the Payette River above Payette Lake where today's Payette Lake kokanee return to spawn in the Meanders.
It is unclear when white man first laid his eyes on the salmon swimming into Long Valley, but Native Americans from several tribes traveled to the block fault valley each summer to catch the fish. Considering the nearby Warren Diggings mining camp wasn't discovered until 1862 and the fact that three men of European descent started to operate a salmon fishery on the North Fork of the Payette River by about 1870, the runs must have shown promise. This open spot on a map attracted Weiser Indians, Nez Perce Indians, Shoshone Indians and others.
Hughes & Bodily and man named Fouchet started a salmon fishery on Payette Lake. They caught redfish from 1870-1876, packed the sockeye and kokanee up in casks with salt and sold it to the miners at Warren's Diggings, which was for a brief time the county seat of Idaho County. Hughes and Bodily moved on, but Fouchet skipped 1877 (note that was the same year as the Nez Perce War) and came back on his own to operate a fishery in 1878 to about 1880, but he didn't succeed as the runs of salmon were declining. Fouchet may not have known they were most likely declining due to increased fishing pressure on the lower Columbia River then.
Some men from the U.S. Fish Commission came to Long Valley in the 1890s to assess the salmon runs here. Barton W. Evermann, in his, A Preliminary Report upon Salmon Investigations in Idaho in 1894, traveled here and gave an account of the chinook, steelhead and sockeye salmon that by then were hanging on by a thread.
Locals, such as Thomas McCall and others spoke of varying degrees of salmon and of the people who came in search of them. They all noted the salmon had been in a great decline. Still each late summer back then you could walk the banks of the North Fork of the Payette River and look at the Native American wikiups they would construct each year as they attempted to catch salmon.
Diminishing runs continued until the Black Canyon Dam was constructed in the early 1920s. The 183-foot tall structure with no fish ladder was too formidable a barrier for the salmon runs of the North Fork of the Payette and soon the last runs died out in the tailwaters below Black Canyon Dam.
Today, there are far too many stories of various local populations of salmon now gone forever. Upper Columbia River salmon were killed off by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam between 1933-1942. Later, man built Chief Joseph Dam below Grand Coulee and pushed back the salmon line further. Imagine the slap in the face naming a salmon-killing dam after the most famous chief of the Nez Perce Tribe which relied upon salmon each and every year.
All the upper Snake River salmon are now gone, locked away forever behind the Hells Canyon Complex of dams, Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams built in the 1950s and 1960s ended salmon runs that once swam into Nevada, Oregon and Idaho along rivers such as the Owyhee, Boise and Weiser. Now gone forever and the people who live in these areas are the poorer for it, so poor many would not even realize they have been impoverished by the extinction of Pacific salmon from their home waters.
Once an economic surplus providing sustenance to anyone who looked to a stream, is today teetering on the brink of extinction. Once nature enriched us and all we had to do was wait for the run, today we do everything under the sun but that which needs to be done to save the salmon and we get diminishing returns. Yet, all we have to do to ensure more and more people and more and more streams are not impoverished by the loss of salmon is to remove four dams on the Lower Snake River. However, while that sounds like a simple task and therefore too good to be true, removing dams isn't an easy task. The dams continued existence means the fate of the remaining Snake River salmon unfairly lie within the larger arguments of energy and transportation. Though, this is another story for another day.