Dagger Falls Leap

A Chinook salmon leaps up Dagger Falls on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon is a terrific cascade. We launch our Middle Fork trips just below, and we like to camp up by the falls after rigging the night before. Falling water is always attractive in its own right, of course, but at Dagger in June there’s an added appeal. If you missed it, let’s take a closer look:

The Salmon River didn’t get its name for nothing. Chinook and sockeye were once abundant on these rivers; Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Range was named for spawning sockeye. The rivers functioned as a conveyor belt for ocean nutrients as the salmon fattened up in the Pacific and then carried that store of fat and flesh 900 miles inland and over 6,000 feet uphill; through the volcanoes of the Cascade Range; through the lava deserts of eastern Oregon and Washington; up through the cliffs and whitewater of one of the nation’s deepest canyons; to the subalpine forests, meadows and streams of central Idaho.

But, despite the fact that the Salmon drainage is arguably the most pristine of its size in the lower 48, with vast acreage protected as roadless wilderness, zero dams on any of its waterways and little development or population, the Idaho sockeye are functionally extinct. The chinook that we see at dagger Falls do a little better, but their return numbers are a paltry few thousand (though it appears that 2010 was a good season for them). The problem stems from eight downstream dams, four on the lower Snake and four on the Columbia. The big ones can still manage to get up, but when the little ones hatch and drift downstream, they suffer around 90% mortality in each reservoir due to disease in the warm water, predation from lake fish, and not knowing where to swim when they lose current.

Amusingly, there is a fish ladder just out of the right edge of the above picture. When fish populations started dropping, it was decided that perhaps they needed help getting up Dagger Falls, as if they hadn’t been dealing with that and other such obstacles for ages. The fish don’t seem to care for it, but prefer to keep launching themselves through the main current as they’ve always done. We see many spectacular leaps, but few obvious successes; they take a beating in the whitewater, and frequently jump smack into the boulders. But if they make it past Dagger, it’s not far to their spawning beds in Bear Valley Creek.

A Chinook salmon leaps up Dagger Falls on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Here’s some nice video footage of the salmon at Dagger (though the soundtrack is a bit bathodramatic), taken about the same time I was there this year. It was quite a show!

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5 thoughts on “Dagger Falls Leap

  1. Holy cow, Jackson. This is so cool! I’ve found some interesting things in full resolution photos that I didn’t see with the naked eye, but nothing this cool. Were you trying to time the leaps, or was this a happy accident? Either way, thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Bret! I was shooting the falls and just watching the fish, thinking “There’s no way I’ll actually catch a jump in a photo.” But after enough straight sots of the falls, I decided to try. They were mostly going for the same spot in the falls, so if I stared right there and hit my remote as soon as I saw motion, it worked out pretty well. And there were enough Salmon to give me a lot of chances. I got the first shot here, and then switched to the long lens, but the in-context version turned out to be cooler than I expected.

  2. That brings back fond memories of watching salmon attempt Dagger Falls on my first Middle Fork kayak sto-float trip back in 1976. That was before much was known about Giardia. Every day of that 5 day trip, we would routinely lean over on an extreme brace to get a drink of that wonderfully clear, cool, pollution-free water whenever we got thirsty. Nobody got sick, there were 6 of us.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Don! Yeah, that water is tempting even today! But the Frank Church is a little funny in that, while most of the watershed is deep in protected wilderness, the headwaters of most significant creeks are not, and there are roads, mines and livestock up there. Even so, it’s a very pristine watershed. I’m sure I’ve ingested a fair amount of Middle Fork water over the years.

  3. Great pictures. And not only do salmon move up the falls, but cutthroat also make it up past Dagger Falls, after going down Dagger Falls to winter in the Middle Fork or Main. I do miss that country.

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