Little Larry Swims: Every Salmon Has Superpowers

Hello! My Latin name is Oncorhynchus nerka, but you can call me Little Larry…

Little Larry cartoon

It’s early spring, and I’m swimming through the melted snow water of Redfish Lake in the heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness. I’m a teeny, tiny fish now, an alevin, still living off egg yolk. But soon on my way to a big adventure—from inland Idaho all the way to the Pacific Ocean, just like my ancestor Lonesome Larry. 

You might remember his story from last week: Lonesome Larry, a sockeye salmon who became the most unlucky bachelor in the West. 

He earned his name after swimming a 900-mile distance, climbing 6,500 feet in elevation only to be stood up for the most important date of his life. No other salmon made it back to spawn in Redfish Lake that year. How was Lonesome Larry to reproduce?

Lonesome Larry’s story tells us a lot about what’s happening to salmon in these parts of the Northwest. We’ve been endangered since 1991. The very fact that I’m here to tell the story is thanks to science and fish biologists. They kept our population going and are helping us to recover. It’s now been 30 years since Lonesome Larry’s misadventure, and soon it’s my turn. 

Super salmon!

I’m getting ready for a new stage of my life cycle. For salmon, it’s one transformation to another. Next step: I’m a fry and presto-chango! once again, I’m a smolt, heading downstream for my big swim.  It’s like the Olympics swimming trials—but a distance no other Olympic swimmer has undertaken. And I’m not competing against other salmon smolts, but trying to dodge past hungry otters, bald eagles, and other fish.

When my journey begins, I head toward the rapids of Redfish Creek. First, I make a pit stop in Redfish Creek. It’s literally a pit stop because I visit briefly with the fish biologists to get a “PIT tag” placed in my belly. This is how these amazing scientists will track my every move. Kinda creepy but interesting too! You can watch how it’s done here.

Loaded up with a PIT tag, I take a steep plunge into the Salmon River, yes, that’s what it’s really called. And yes, we are the fish that make these rivers FAMOUS! 

Salmon River. Credit: Charles ‘Chuck’ Peterson/Idaho Fish and Game

But that’s not my only superpower. Salmon are anadromous fish. An-drama-wha? I know, add that to your vocabulary list!

Anadromous (uh·na·druh·muhs) fish like me spend part of their lives in freshwater and part of their lives in saltwater. So, once I get to the ocean, I’ll transform from a freshwater fish into a saltwater fish, and then after around 2-3 years, I’ll transform back into a freshwater fish. Not only that, my scales will turn color from silver to red, signaling that I’m on my way home to spawn!

I bet you’re wondering how I know my way home—without a smartphone to guide me. Moana didn’t have a smartphone so she used the sun and the stars to find her way home. Scientists think that salmon rely on earth’s magnetic field to navigate back to the river we left to enter the ocean. Pretty magneat-o!

salmon jumping upstream into waterfall
Waterfalls are one of many obstacles on a salmon’s migration upstream. A chinook salmon navigates Dagger Falls on the Salmon River. Credit: J/T jmyers via NOAA

From there, I’ll rely on my supersniffer. Yep, I have a great sense of smell, and I remember what home smells like from when I was there as a smolt! I’ll use that to smell the rest of my way back to Redfish Lake, where I was born. That upriver migration is no easy game of water-polo. It’s more like a reality tv show, I’ll be dodging hungry predators like bears and eagles—I’ll even jump up waterfalls! I’ll also need to swim past the dams and other barriers. 

Here’s the part most people can’t get their head—or stomachs!—around: I won’t eat the whole way. Nothin’. Salmon like me can swim upwards of 30 miles a day through these rivers and their dangers, all on an empty stomach. And then there are my cousins, the chinook. They’re the ultimate super swimmers. They can climb as much as 7,000 feet in elevation on their swim back to spawning grounds. That’s more than a mile higher than the ocean! 

That’s it from me for now! I’ll check in again soon. Oh…and bonus points if you can figure out what part of my anatomy figures into my Latin name! Hint hint: it’s one of my superpowers!

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.