A wild baby Chinook salmon, three inches long, from a small California creek, miles from the ocean, being measured before release back into the forest water.

Homing Salmon

We've all experienced the feeling of 'home'. So, what if the call to go home suddenly became so irresistible, nothing else mattered?

We’ve all experienced the ache, at one time or another, of homesickness and missing home. That recognition of our neighborhood as we get closer, pleasure when we arrive after time away: home. In a way its odd that we would form such deep attachment to a place, and that even after the passing of time and distance it can still retain the lure of attraction.

But we’re not the only ones who do. Animals in the wild return unerringly to homes, as well.  Birds who wing off to forage in the morning find their way back to their own nests again that night, foxes their dens, bees their hive.

We can’t know what feelings they attach, if any, to those chosen places. But it’s undeniable, they recognize their home, and are drawn to return to it, even if only for a season.

And when it comes to answering the call to go home, the salmon is clearly in a league of its own.

If you’ve never seen a living salmon in a freshwater stream out in the woods, it’s amazing to discover them there, virtually invisible in the water. I had the chance with a team of fishery biologists on Mill Creek in Sonoma County in the early spring. They’d set a catch-box and were busy counting and tagging four inch parrs (the adolescent stage) in the dappled light of the forest. In that setting the colors and patterns and marks on the young salmon – from the silver sides to the leopard spots to the line of vertical bars – worked perfectly to blend them into their shimmering watery home.

At a certain age an internal switch trips in the salmon juveniles and they leave their natal pools, turn downstream, swim many miles away and out into a place they’ve never been, the unknown Pacific. The survivors will spend years ranging in the open ocean growing fat and long and sleek.

Then, one day, no one knows how, they feel an urgent calling to go home.

stream through redwood forest
Mill Creek, a salmon stream in the redwood forests of Sonoma County

When it’s time for homecoming, salmon, of course, don’t simply pick any stream and head inland: each fish finds, among all the water outlets along a thousand miles of California coast, the one stream that leads back to the pools where they spent their first years.

How a salmon finds that one unique place among all the ferns and gravel is a mystery. But when salmon are tagged in one creek hundreds of miles deep in a forest, they are found returning there again.

The calling of home is so intense, it drives them to leave the sea, rewire most of their physiology, and then run uphill against the current in a one-way life-or-death race into a steadily narrowing gauntlet of obstacles. To get home.

It’s hard to imagine a longing so intense that it would override all other things, a siren call, irresistible to ignore.

When we raise barriers, the biologists explain, and cut off the stream or take the water, the salmon can’t find their way home. Left to circle in a disappearing pool, or below the unbreachable dam, they play out their fate, unrelenting, trying to answer a call they can’t fulfill.

The small salmon in the photo above, a coho, was measured and then placed unharmed back in Mill Creek, with a tiny electronic grain, to help biologists record its arrival, should it swim back upstream some future day. That waterway has been restored and its upper reaches recently reopened to returning fish. Only a few salmon do, yet. But people who appreciate the call of home are working to reverse that.