Little Larry Swims: A Small Salmon on a Big Journey

The story begins with a fishy romance gone wrong…

Hello from Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness in central Idaho—home to untamed nature and funny fish stories!

Ever heard of Redfish Lake? And do you wonder how it got its name? Let me fill you in!

Back in the day, the waters of this big blue lake would turn red every fall when thousands of red-colored sockeye salmon returned all the way from the Pacific Ocean to spawn (aka reproduce). It takes a lot of salmon to turn a blue lake red! 

Redfish lake
Redfish Lake. Credit: Nate Lowe/U.S. Forest Service

But 30 years ago, Redfish Lake became famous for another reason. It was the scene of a date-night disaster for a legendary fish, my ancestor, Lonesome Larry. It’s a true story, a tragi-comedy, swimming in the amazing science that has sustained the survival of sockeye like me in Redfish Lake. 

So what’s the story, you ask? Here goes: 

The legend of Lonesome Larry 

The year was 1992 and Lonesome Larry was in spawning mode. Basically, he was an eligible bachelor looking to get a date. He swam—and survived—the epic return migration journey—a 900-mile distance, climbing 6,500 feet in elevation—only to discover he’d been stood up. 

There were no other sockeye in Redfish Lake to be found. None. Nada. The truth be told, the other sockeye didn’t survive the journey as Larry had. While that might have made him a star, he was a very lonely one. This was the most important date of his life—salmon only get one chance to spawn, and a single salmon’s arrival meant that the future generations of his species were in trouble!

At that point, they could’ve renamed the lake “Lone Redfish Lake.”  Lonesome Larry was just one lonely red dot in the lake. And that’s how Lonesome Larry got his name. 

sockeye salmon in stream
Sockeye salmon return to their natal streams to spawn. By returning to their own spawn site, they don’t waste time looking for a stream that provides good habitat and other salmon Credit: Ryan Haggerty/USFWS

For some fish, that might be the end of the story. Not for Lonesome Larry. His romantic dilemma catapulted him to a weird kind of fame. It rallied people together to make sure more sockeye could get back to Redfish Lake. Adults, families, kids all came together to rally for Larry. (See the Sock Guy for the Sockeye!) 

Fans of Redfish Lake and salmon began to consider the root cause of Lonesome Larry’s troubles. So did the scientists. And they came to a clear conclusion: The four dams built along the lower Snake River were a serious problem for salmon—and the wildlife and people who depend on them. 

Saving sockeye

People often think dams are good for the environment. But it isn’t clean energy if you are pushing species toward extinction. The Snake River is our watery highway to the ocean and back, and we salmon need to get through. There’s no getting around that fish need a river. But dams are big roadblocks—creating scary obstacles and hot reservoirs, a serious threat for fish that need to migrate the great distances that we do.

Lonesome Larry beat the odds. And lucky for me, scientists took Larry out of Redfish Lake to make sure that his big date night was not a complete failure. They mixed his milt with unfertilized eggs, and many generations later, here I am! 

Little Larry cartoon

I’m an alevin now, living off yolk in the early stage of my lifecycle. I’m getting ready to make that same journey Lonesome Larry made out to the ocean, with plans to come back. But I’ll do one thing differently. I don’t intend to get stood up! 

More about this series

Little Larry is a tiny fish on a big journey—swimming 900-miles from Idaho to the Pacific—tail first! His journey is a reminder that salmon could become extinct.

Follow his story and cheer him on as he swims to beat the odds!

Little Larry Swims: A Small Salmon on a Big Journey

Little Larry Swims: Every Salmon Has Superpowers

Little Larry Swims: High Tailin’ Salmon

Little Larry Swims: Salmon in the Trees?

Little Larry Swims: Some Like it Hot! Salmon Like it Cold.

Little Larry Swims: Whoop Whoop! Living the Anadromous Life

Who Was Lonesome Larry

Watch the video

Meet some kids who are speaking up for salmon.