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What we think happens

“What we think happens,” a scientist was quoted as saying, “is that when salmon leave the river … they imprint the magnetic field and log it in as a waypoint which they can follow back to their home river.”

That’s news to a lot of us. I was always told the salmon came from a big house at the bottom of the ocean where they lived in human form. When it was time for the run, they put on salmon robes. The salmon runs were a voluntary sacrifice for mankind — the animals and the forest. As long as the salmon were treated with respect, their bones washed and returned to the river, the fish would run forever. All of which goes a long way to explain the crummy fishing lately.

Being a wilderness gossip columnist, my view is regarded as a native superstition. Never mind that it is shared to some degree by every Native culture throughout the range of the salmon from California to the Yukon River.

So when some know-it-all scientist pipes up with, “What we think happens” about the salmon always returning to the river where they were born, it reminds of other fables we were fed, where blind faith in technology and infallible belief in consensus made a new religion out of science.

I’m not bitter. I could have been a scientist except for one thing, high school. We had a darned good biology teacher, Stephen Kennedy. He was a stickler for answering questions with a question. You probably know that’s the Socratic Method, but we were an ignorant rabble of sucker-punching thugs who came to school with truck-loads of guns and ammunition that we hand-loaded ourselves because heck, right after Mr. Kennedy’s biology class we were going hunting! Forget about dissecting baby pigs in biology class, I brought in a fresh bear skull! Too bad it caught on fire in the auto-clave but it was probably time to test the fire extinguishers anyway! Unfortunately, after that and other failed, stinky experiments, I was stuck dissecting slugs.

Mr. Kennedy was an authority figure that taught us to question authority figures. In the early ’70s, the best scientists money could buy were telling us spraying chemicals in the environment was so safe, they could drink the stuff. Then we read “The Silent Spring” and learned the key to understanding science was to learn who was paying the scientist.

Salmon don’t always return to the river where they were spawned. I often catch fish in the Hoh River with one or more of their fins cut off. The barbaric practice of fin clipping removes adipose, dorsal, ventral and pectoral fins from salmon and steelhead smolts, depending on the whims of the various state, federal and tribal hatcheries that are located on every river on the Olympic Peninsula. It is often possible to identify the origin of a fish by which fin was whacked off. We catch all these mixed-up and mutilated fish in the Hoh River along with other fish that do not belong there, lost Humpies, Chum and Sockeye salmon.

Why do fish return to the wrong river? Is that how salmon re-colonized rivers after the last ice age? Why are king salmon from the Yukon to Northern California the same fish? Are the stocks mixing say, in a large house at the bottom of the ocean, where they party in human form until returning to give us the gift of their bodies? The answers to these and other questions may prove a theory, that the salmon have not been given the respect they are due.

Pat Neal is a fishing guide on the West End rivers. He can be reached at (360) 683-9976, or