Salmon and Steelhead Days feed youngsters' minds and bellies

The psychedelic salmon are back.

If you pass the T intersection at Walnut and Myrtle streets on your commute, or have had to drop by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game headquarters, you've seen them.

Wooden cutouts of salmon, painted in all sorts of colors, line the lawn and signal the annual Idaho Salmon and Steelhead Days.

Time flies. It's the 10th anniversary of Salmon and Steelhead Days, which are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

It's when thousands of fifth- graders learn about Idaho's amazing ocean-going fish.

The wooden fish — seemingly migrating across the lawn toward the Boise River — the teachers, sponsors and organizers of the event have an enormous impact on salmon and steelhead education.

Patrick Watson of Boise remembers going through the program in 1997 when he was in elementary school.

This fall he is entering Albertson College of Idaho as a freshman and pursuing environmental studies.

"I didn't have a ton of knowledge about salmon," he said of when he was in grade school.

Salmon and Steelhead Days changed that. "It planted a seed," he said.

Watson likes camping and fishing and enjoys wandering in Idaho's wilderness areas.

He graduated from Bishop Kelly High School and is looking forward to learning more about the environment.

He believes what he learned as a grade-schooler at Salmon and Steelhead Days sparked that interest.

"It opened my eyes that such a simple creature can be so amazing and so intelligent," he said.

What impressed Watson during Salmon and Steelhead Days was learning how salmon and steelhead make their way back to the stream, where they were hatched, through a sense of smell.

It's one of nature's miracles.

Over the years, about 25,000 students, parents and teachers have gone through the program and learned about Idaho's amazing miracle fish.

"We have between 2,300 and 2,600 each year," said Dan Herrig, executive director of the event.

The event was started 10 years ago by several biologists interested in teaching youngsters about one of Idaho's incredible natural resources — anadromous fish. (Anadromous means ocean-going.)

"We wanted to raise awareness for the fish," Herrig said.

Children learn the life cycle of a salmon, the conditions salmon face during migration and the current status of salmon and steelhead in Idaho.

They also learn how important the fish has been historically for native peoples and for people today.

They learn how salmon hatch in a stream, migrate to the ocean and live for several years. The fish return to where they hatched to spawn and die. They learn how their decaying bodies provide nutrients in the streams and rivers and for the surrounding forests.

Besides being educational, Salmon and Steelhead Days is delicious. A salmon barbecue will take place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Fish and Game headquarters, 600 S. Walnut St.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $3 for kids and can be purchased at Fish and Game headquarters or the MK Nature Center behind the headquarters.

Activities during the barbecue include live music, gyotaku fish printing, a Native American display, and "Kids In the Creek."

The Nature Center stream walk will be open for viewing live chinook salmon and kokanee salmon.

The food's good (I've been going for years now), but the seed that is planted in the minds of youngsters about Idaho's incredible fish is so important.

About 60 to 80 classes from 30 or more schools attend the event each year. The students, like Patrick Watson, gain a new appreciation for Idaho's amazing fish.

Raising awareness of steelhead and salmon will make a difference in the survival of the fish.