It’s salmon spawning season! A great time to visit the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery for an up-close look at hundreds of salmon swimming up Issaquah Creek and in holding tanks. My kids and I enjoyed this enrichment experience and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating Northwest species and its life cycle.
We had been to the hatchery many times before, but my sons Nikhil, 9, and Simon, 6, had no idea what to expect this time around, with COVID-19 social-distancing rules in place. We went with lunches packed, masks in hand and a Plan B to stop at one of the many local streams to check for salmon, in case the hatchery was closed or crowded.
Parking and entry
Taking a quick 40-minute drive from Woodinville into downtown Issaquah (many restaurants open with outdoor seating, by the way), we parked near the Issaquah Salmon hatchery (free 2-hour street parking available on all sides of the facility). The entrance, cornered off by large orange cones and plastic netting, gives the appearance that the facility was under construction, but it’s open.
Volunteers greeted us at a covered table equipped with brochures and a tour sign-up sheet. Walk-up tours are welcome, but reserve a time online for guaranteed access. Tours are limited to groups of five and last roughly 40 minutes.
Our guide introduced himself and asked us to wear our masks the entire time we were with him. He started our walk at a pair of salmon statues where we learned about the differences between male and female salmon. “The boys have a hooklike mouth!” observed my oldest, Nikhil.
We moved on to an indoor exhibit, blocked off by caution tape. We weren’t able to enter fully, but saw some of the exhibit from the door. Our guide then led us to a bridge over Issaquah Creek, where we could see dozens of male and female salmon swimming upstream. Some females stopped to wag their tails, clearing an area for nesting. With a swish and a swoosh we saw males fighting with each other in hopes of fertilizing the eggs of the female.
“Mom! There’s a dead fish, too!” Simon said. Our guide explained to us that after spawning, the salmon die, lying on the banks of streams and rivers. The dead salmon are then eaten by forest animals like beavers, birds and otters, completing an ecological life cycle. Surviving salmon continue swimming upstream to the ladders of the hatchery, our next stop.
Up close and personal
Ladders are steplike structures that allow fish to swim around large manmade structures like dams. At the hatchery, salmon jump up the steps to enter a holding tank. We had to have a lot of patience to see salmon jump the ladder, but when we did, it was exciting to see them flying through the air, landing with a big splash into the next tank.
“They’re huge!” Both children were amazed to see the salmon up close, in the large tank, located at the end of the ladder. The guide helped us spot a few different types of salmon. We looped around to where the baby salmon (called fry) were kept (more than a million of them!) to take a peek. Then onto a map to discuss the journey of wild salmon from the oceans, where they live their adult lives, and then back to the rivers and streams, where they come back to spawn. It was fascinating to learn that they innately know exactly where they were born when it comes time to spawn.
We ended our tour at the facility where biologists farm salmon, taking a look through the windows of the building to see large tubs where salmon eggs are harvested and fertilized, grown and eventually released back into the wild. Did you know that female salmon are clubbed on the head so that their eggs can be harvested?
More salmon viewing
“This was really great, Mom! Better than I thought,” said Simon at the end of the tour. Right before lunch we headed to a larger bridge on the street, past the hatchery entrance, to see more salmon swimming upstream. We made some more observations about the dead fish on the banks and the number of fish that might be making their journey up the stream and back to their birthplace. It was a perfect end to our field trip. We learned so much and looked forward to coming back post-COVID to visit the salmon again.
Since we were already in Issaquah, we didn’t miss stopping at the famous Boehm’s Candies, a charming shop filled with house-made candies and chocolates. Adjacent to the store is a beautiful garden and chapel (chapel entry not permitted at this time) where we took a self-guided tour. We learned about Boehm’s founder and history. Then we entered the store with masks on and picked up a few treats for the ride home.
Issaquah Salmon Hatchery: things to remember
– Wear good walking shoes
– Bring a comfortable mask
– Bring cash for a suggested donation
– Bathrooms are not available for guest use at this time
– Reserve tickets online