The run to Wallowa Lake was gone by 1905, the ever-dwindling runs to Payette Lake were forever shutdown by the construction of Black Canyon Dam on the Payette River near Emmett, Idaho in 1924. The Redfish Lake and nearby runs of sockeye were shutdown for 21 years by the construction of Sunbeam Dam on the upper Salmon River. This is the history of our interaction with these fish.
We know there were impressive runs of fish from various historical data, such as U.S. Fish Commission reports that mention the attempts to start a sockeye fishery on Redfish Lake in the 1880s when the run was thought to be 25,000 to 40,000 sockeye. We know that Hughes & Bodily and a man named Louis Fouchet operated a redfish fishery in the Payette Lake area from 1870 to 1876 and Fouchet returned to do the same from 1878-1880. We also know that in one year Hughes, Bodily and Fouchet caught 75,000 pounds of redfish (if sockeye that would be 37,500 dressed fish) that they packed in barrels with salt for sale to mining camps in the region. We know that they caught 7,000 sockeye in 1874. We know there were once substantial runs that are no longer around.
Historical abundance of sockeye runs in the Columbia/Snake are widely accepted to be about 3 million of the 10-16 million salmon and steelhead that returned each year before development. Today our Snake River sockeye are limited to the upper Salmon River in the Stanley basin. Sockeye were gone from Alturas Lake around the beginning of the 20th century. During a 10-year period from 1955-1965 the Idaho Department of Fish and Game got rid of the sockeye runs that went to Pettit, Stanley and Yellowbelly lakes. The sockeye that did make it back had Redfish Lake and by the late 1980s early 1990s that population crashed with only about 18 of the fish returning over the span of a decade.
We've had improving runs of sockeye to Redfish Lake since 2008, but we are far too cheerful about these results when you consider the historical abundance that once was, when you consider that there are five dams without fish ladders (Cascade, Black Canyon, Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon) standing in the way of ever recovering the Payette basin sockeye. This year 1,502 sockeye were counted crossing over Lower Granite Dam, the final and eighth dam anadromous fish must traverse to return to Idaho. Today we cheer that we are able to say that 1 percent of the number of sockeye that used to come back to Idaho waters have come back.
This is not a time for celebrations, this is not a time for slapping ourselves on the back. This is a time for real action, real solutions. The primary reason for the decline of Idaho's salmon is the four lower Snake River dams. Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams were built to subsidize transportation costs for agriculture at the known cost to Idaho's salmon, it's is past time to breach those dams and allow Idaho's salmon the free flowing rivers they deserve.