Kokanee Salmon

– Little Red Fish


Lake Sammamish kokanee – the “little red fish” to the Snoqualmie – were an important traditional food source, not only for the families that lived along the shores of the lake, but for distant Tribal people as well. The kokanee came at a time of year when other food sources were less abundant; it has been said that the kokanee made it possible to live at Lake Sammamish year-round.


These landlocked sockeye salmon stay in Lake Sammamish instead of traveling out to the ocean and can be seen between early November and late January in surrounding tributaries.

Kokanee Salmon Illustration

by McKenna Sweet Dorman

Saving the Kokanee Salmon


The kokanee’s life cycle is a vital part of the Lake Sammamish habitat. Kokanee face more threats each year at every stage of their life cycle.


The threats include predatory non-native fish populations, encroaching development in fish habitat, lack of passable culverts and spawning habitats, rising water temperatures, decreasing water oxygen levels, and lack of food sources. These kokanee salmon are culturally and historically significant to the Snoqualmie People. While other freshwater salmon exist, the Lake Sammamish kokanee have a genetic signature that is tied to the lake and is unlike any other salmon on the planet. Lake Sammamish has been the home of these kokanee salmon since time immemorial.


There are currently several local projects to support these kokanee and rebuild their natural habitats. To learn more, click on the video trailer or button linked to the website for Spawning Grounds, a documentary that focuses on the recent conservation work around the kokanee salmon.

– Small Red Fish


A previous inhabitant of Lake Sammamish were small red fish – not to be confused with the “little red fish.” These small red fish were known as ʔilaʔɫ.


They inhabited Lake Sammamish and traveled up the Cedar River. These fish are known to have intermingled with sockeye salmon producing a slightly larger red fish.


– Longfin smelt


Another important traditional food source was the longfin smelt. Shortlived, few live to three years.


Though not as many still spawn in Lake Sammamish, populations are known to still spawn in the tributaries of Lake Washington at night during winter though early spring.