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salmonSockeye Scents

This lesson plan can be adapted for students in grades K-12. In groups of four, students participate in map and simulation exercises to explore the migration of salmon on paper and through their sense of smell.



In this two-part activity, students explore the migration of salmon on paper and through their sense of smell. Salmon begin life as eggs in the gravel of a stream or (in the case of some Sockeye) lakeshore. They migrate down rivers to the ocean and spend several years in that vast salty environment. Then somehow at a certain time, they swim back to their "home" rivers and migrate upstream all the way to the exact place where they were born. How do salmon do it? Scientists think these traveling fish may receive cues from their orientation to the earth's magnetic field, plus clues from the sun's position in the sky. They also think scent plays a major part in the ability of a salmon to find home. Your students might give some thought to how well they'd find their own homes if they had to rely only on smell!



  • map of the Columbia River Drainage System (must clearly show Redfish Lake and Salmon River)

  • pencils, crayons, markers

  • paper cups, at least 40

  • paper towels

  • rubber bands, at least 40

  • blue ribbon, a lot of it

  • four sample scents such as garlic, mint, chocolate, anise



The student will be able to:

  1. Trace and label the migratory route that Sockeye salmon take from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake, Idaho. (Include rivers, dams, lakes, reservoirs, and states.)

  2. Describe one theory about how a salmon can find its birth stream.

  3. Lead other students or classes in discussion and the migration.


Part One

  1. Ask the students to close their eyes and picture a favorite place such as the forest, a fishing spot, someone's home. Ask them to recall distinct odors or fragrances from that place.

  2. Ensure that students understand the life cycle of the Sockeye, especially the spawning migration. (If you are limited in time, you can convey the information through a discussion, video, guest speaker, or individual reading assignment. If you have more time, allow students to construct their own understanding of the life cycle as described in Extension 1.)

  3. Divide the students into groups of four. Give each group a map of the Columbia River Drainage System, and ask them to trace the route of the Sockeye from the Pacific to Redfish Lake, Idaho. They need to locate and label the following:

    • ocean
    • states
    • dams
    • rivers and streams
    • lakes and reservoirs
  4. Display the maps and discuss each group's findings. Come to consensus on the route and the major features described in Step 3.


Part Two


Note: The following steps are for the minimum setup; we recommend you conduct the activity this way the first time. With experience, you can increase the number of scents, choices, and routes. Each increase of scent or route increases the difficulty of the activity.

  1. Prepare the scent samples. Choose four scents such as garlic, mint, chocolate, anise. Place each scent into two cups. Cover each cup with a paper towel held in place by a rubber band. Number the cups, and make a note of which scent is in which number cup.

  2. Lay out the ribbon river system as shown in the illustration. Establish two correct "spawning routes" by placing scents in the correct order at each fork in the migration path. (One route follows the odd-numbered order of scents; one route follows the even- numbered order of scents.) Be sure to note the two correct routes. Mix up the scents for the remaining routes.


  1. Ask students to close their eyes and picture a favorite place such as the forest, a fishing spot, someone's home. Ask them to recall distinct odors or fragrances from that place.



  • To increase the challenge and learning opportunity of this activity, you may wish to have the students choose their method of learning about the life cycle of Sockeye. For example, one group could decide to interview a fisheries biologist or to look for information on the Internet. Allow a specific time for this phase and then set aside a period for the groups to share their information with each other. Have the entire class contribute to a large drawing that shows the life cycle.

  • Ask students to create either visual images or a piece of creative writing that describes the life of the Sockeye.

  • Ask each group to choose another species of salmon and investigate its life cycle and migration.

  • Ask each group to choose another animal that migrates (bald eagle, Monarch butterfly, elk) and develop a class presentation (verbal or visual) describing that migration.

Back to Fish and Game Activities

Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game

Thanks to Idaho Fish and Game and Project WILD for all of their help and information.

All information in these sites from "Wild About Salmon" is copyrighted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Idaho Project WILD, 1999.

Written permission was granted to use this material for educational purposes.

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