During spring in the 1800s, people in Elko County would have been preparing for salmon fishing. Numerous newspaper articles record Elko residents feasting on huge salmon caught in our northern streams.
Most of Elko County is part of the Great Basin, where rivers flow inward with no access to the ocean. But the Jarbidge, Bruneau and Owyhee Rivers flow north into the Snake River, then into the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean.
For thousands of years, 10-16 million king salmon migrated from the ocean up the Columbia River and thousands spawned in Elko County. Each year, about 120,000 chinook salmon completed three runs up the Snake River and 150,000 sockeye salmon made yearly runs. The Snake River drainage and its tributaries was one of the most important spawning areas for these salmon.
In the late 1800s, people in Elko County described seeing salmon swim among sagebrush as spring flows forced streams out of their banks.
“Tuscarora Items – Fresh Salmon in the Market.” ‘Elko Weekly Post, April 7, 1877.
“Salmon trout three feet long are among the luxuries that are sent to Elko from Independence Valley [Tuscarora area].” Elko Weekly Post, May 11, 1878.
“Dog salmon are brought into town now by Indians. One was caught yesterday which weighted 25 pounds.” Tuscarora Times-Review, September 9, 1881.
Salmon that could grow to 30 pounds provided an important food source to native people across the Snake River drainage. Shoshone Falls, near today’s Twin Falls, was an important fishing area. These falls blocked salmon from reaching the upper reaches of the Snake River.
The Duck Valley Indian Reservation was created in 1877 and placed at Owyhee, at least in part because salmon would provide a yearly food supply for the Western Shoshone and Paiute people living there.
Overfishing reduced fish numbers in the early 1900s and salmon were blocked from their annual spawning runs into Elko County in 1932 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed Oregon’s Owyhee Dam. Salmon have been absent from all of the Snake River System since 1961 when dams closed off the lower Snake River.
In recent years, salmon have once again swum in the Owyhee River. Chinook salmon collected in a trap below Hells Canyon Dam, have been released on the Duck Valley Reservation, accompanied with much ceremony. A weir kept the salmon from migrating upstream off the reservation. The salmon lived about a month as they spawned and Shoshone and Paiute tribal members were allowed to fish for these salmon, as their ancestors did.