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Silicon Salmon

Chinook Salmon

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

By Michael Learmonth

ROGER CASTILLO'S GOT A BIG FISH STORY. But he can back it up. He's got a Web site with real-time video showing a 43-inch chinook salmon trying to jump a concrete barrier to spawn in the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose. Castillo watched the chinook for four days trying to leap that barrier. He took pictures and shot video. The fish never made it.

"He's at the taxidermist," Castillo says. "I picked him up when he died."

What are chinook salmon doing in downtown San Jose? Historically, salmon have always spawned in the Guadalupe. Overfishing, pollution and development killed the fish population as San Jose grew up over the 20th century. But in the mid-'80s, the mighty chinook--the largest variety of salmon--started coming back.

"Smack downtown San Jose is the best place to see salmon," says Castillo. "Right under the new Julian Street bridge."

Starting in July and ending in December, up and down the Pacific coast, chinook salmon begin a journey as long as 3,000 miles from the icy cold waters of the vast North Pacific back to the little stream--and sometimes even the very gravel bed--where they were born. It is a journey that baffles biologists. Some believe the salmon's acute sense of smell leads them back. Some believe the earth's magnetic field helps them "feel" their way back.

It is an awesome sight--adult salmon fighting their way up small streams, sometimes jumping barriers to get back to the calm beds of gravel to lay or fertilize eggs. But it is a sight that has become all too rare as some wild salmon populations have dwindled to the point that they are in danger of being wiped out completely.

Yet in San Jose, the chinook seems to defy common sense.

"Wild animals are opportunists," says Castillo, a network technician at Digital Equipment. "We've got two 50-inchers on record. These fish are so big they leave a wake--like a submarine."

Roger Castillo is director of Silichip Chinook, an organization working to preserve the Guadalupe. The river has been the focus of a $138 million flood-control project being built by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Castillo is working to make sure the water district's project includes measures to keep the salmon coming.

He wants the district to include adequate riparian vegetation to keep the river cool--under 60 degrees. He also wants the deadly concrete-and-rebar rubble removed.

The San Jose salmon sightings have almost a Nessie-like aura. Yet these majestic beasts are easy to find. Larry Johmann, a member of the Western Waters Canoe Club and an engineer at Lockheed Martin, also has been photographing Guadalupe salmon for years. He says urban campers catch the salmon for food. "The homeless are poaching," he says, "there's no question about it."

Johmann would like to see the Guadalupe restored for wildlife and recreation. "I got interested because I wanted to save the river for canoeing," he says. "If you can save the river for the fish, you can save it for everything."

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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