Micro-season: “The Salmon Gather to Spawn”

We have entered the micro-season of “The Salmon Gather to Spawn”.  This is the part of the mini season Major Snow, which runs from December 07 until December 21. The other micro-seasons in this mini season are:

  • The Sky is Cold, Winter Comes (Dec. 07 – Dec. 11)
  • The Bear Retreats to its Den (Dec. 11 – Dec 16)
  • The Salmon Gather to Spawn (Dec 17 – Dec 21)

The micro-seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai.  Each micro-season lasts about five days and highlights a slight change in the natural environment.  The micro-seasons are specific to the climate of Japan because they were developed around their agrarian society.  However, just because this calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean that it isn’t applicable to others.  These seasons can become a starting point for your personal exploration into the world around you. 


This micro-season focuses on the anadromous behavior of salmon.  “Anadromous” means that a fish is born in freshwater, moves to saltwater for most of its life, and then returns to freshwater to spawn.  This is the opposite of a catadromous fish which is born in saltwater, spends most of its life in freshwater and then returns to seawater to spawn.

The Japanese have three types of  anadromous salmon: chum salmon, pink salmon, and cherry salmon.(1)  These migrating fish have a long history with the Japanese people including the myth of Osuke.

Osuke is the king of salmon and every year around this time the Japanese fisherman remove their nets and traps from the streams so Osuke and Kosuke, his wife, can travel upstream. It is said that if you hear the voice of Osuke chanting to Kosuke as they migrate, you will die within three days. (2,3) However, there is some confusion about Osuke’s words.  Some have him chanting “Osuke is now going upriver!”, while others suggest he chats “Here we come up, Osuke and Kosuke!”.  I guess the discrepancy in reporting makes sense because all who have heard the chants have died.  Or at least that is how the legend goes.

Osuke, king salmon illustration
 Osuke: Image credit: Salmon Osuke Legends

The Atlantic Salmon

The Atlantic Salmon is anadromous salmon found in the Western regions of the globe.  This species is separated into three groups based on primary habitat. These groups are North American, European, and Baltic.  After spawning in the coastal rivers of North America, Iceland, Europe, and northwestern Russia, many of these fish migrate to to feed off the coast of Greenland.  The North American and European salmon have been known to intermix in the northern atlantic feeding areas.(4)

The Atlantic salmon is currently identified as a “Protected” species under the Endangered Species Act.  The Atlantic Salmon was once abundant and found in many coastal waterways.  But through the construction of dams, culverts, and overfishing, the salmon’s population declined until 1948 when the salmon fisheries were closed to commercial fishing.  Right now, all Atlantic Salmon sold at market are commercially grown.(4)

Atlantic Salmon
Atlantic Salmon: Photo Credit NOAA

Interestingly, there is also a breed of landlocked Atlantic Salmon that is struggling just as much as the ocean living salmon, and the story of the Lake Champlain Salmon can illustrate this.

Lake Champlain is a 490 square mile freshwater lake that sits between Vermont and New York and borders Canada.  The Lake was once an abundant fishery, but by the early 1800s the native Atlantic salmon population was gone as a result of overfishing, agricultural runoff, and the building of dams that blocked salmon from reaching their breeding grounds. Because the salmon is a keystone species, meaning that there are many species that depend on this species, and it is disastrous when they disappeared and the loss of this fish sparked governmental action.  

In 1972, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to embark on a project to rebuild the Atlantic salmon population in Vermont. Through a combined effort of lake conservationists, the biologist working at the salmon hatcheries, and other state agencies, universities, and research organizations, the salmon is returning to the lake. This is an ongoing effort to try to repair the damage and the initial results are promising. The Salmon are returning to the lake and there have been several successful spawning seasons.

For more information about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services efforts to re-establish the Atlantic Salmon populations in Lake Champlain check out this  2017 five-part series written by science writer Bridget Macdonald. 

Landlocked Salmon
Landlocked Salmon: Photo Credit VT Fish and Wildlife

Salmon Haiku

I was actually quite surprised that I wasn’t able to find any haiku that highlight the salmon spawn.  However, I was able to these haiku by Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa that talk about eating salmon.  Dried salmon is a winter kigo, or seasonal word, for haiku.

snow in the morning -
alone with dried salmon
to chew on
-Matsuo Bashō

beating time
on a dried salmon too...
praise Buddha!
-Kobayashi Issa

If you happen to know any haiku or poems about the salmon spawn, please share in the comments below.   


Resources: 

  1. Thomas M. Kron,”Japan’s Salmon Culture Program and Coastal Salmon Fisheries”, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
  2. 72 seasons app
  3. Heian Period Japan: Salmon Osuke Legends
  4. NOAA; Atlantic Salmon
  5. VT Fish and Wildlife; Landlocked Salmon
  6. Bridget Macdonald; Driven by instincts and a pickup truck

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13 thoughts on “Micro-season: “The Salmon Gather to Spawn”

Add yours

  1. Mark, thanks for an interesting article about the salmon season. I don’t have haiku about the spawn but do have plenty of poetic prose about the salmon runs, including a chapter called “Portrait of the Chinook as an Old Man” in my book called Wings Over Water, available from me, Walt Franklin, or online, if interested… Keep up the good writing!

    1. Hi Walt, when I saw your comment, and knowing that you were an avid angler, I was actually hoping that you had an haiku!
      I am always looking for good nature inspired reading. I’ll head over and check out your book. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Nice work on this essay, Mark. I’m surprised Basho and Issa have no haiku about the salmon spawn, considering how dramatic it is (and how prolific they were as haiku authors). Seems like it would be rife with symbolism and perfect subject matter for haiku. Also, I had no idea about the Atlantic salmon situation in your neck o’ the woods. It’s good to know things are improving for them. Thanks for such an educational piece. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I was surprised that I couldn’t find any haiku about salmon spawning. There have, however, been a few more contemporary haiku contests as a way to bring awareness to their plight in the northwest. But nothing from the old haiku masters. Thanks for the comment. Talk soon,

  3. I just read something about Lake Michigan’s perch populations plummeting and of course they blame the walleye. Response: increase the number of walleye allowed to be taken. I have to shake my head when I read things like this. WE are the reason, not the walleye, that the perch are headed towards disaster. I don’t think we will wake up in time, Mark.

    1. I will look into the relationship between the walleye and the perch. Did humans introduce the walleye to Lake Michigan? Or did we do something else to the environment that changed the habitat from one that can sustain both species, to one that benefits only one species. Either way, you are right! We may not wake up in time. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Mark, that would be great if you could look into it. My guess is the water temp has affected reproduction of the perch but will be interested to see what you find out. I think walleye are native species but I could be wrong.

  4. Hi Melanie, that is a great article! Really good exploration into the ways we are connected to, destroy, and then try to rebuild our natural world. I wasn’t aware of the need for still water places on the river for the salmon to allow their systems to adapt, or the splash dams. Thanks for sharing this! Great read.

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