Chi Council for the Clear Lake Hitch

Life Cycle of the Hitch

 

Adult members of the subspecies lavinia exilicauda chi, which can reach a maximum length of 14 inches (in the case of the noticeably larger females) and weigh a pound or more, spend most of their time deep in the waters of Clear Lake, where as "filter feeders" they subsist primarily on plankton. It is said to be nearly impossible to catch them on a hook and line, and although they are occasionally caught accidentally in the nets of commercial fishermen they are otherwise seldom observed by human beings at all.

But every spring for a few weeks—or occasionally for a few months—these ordinarily invisible fish suddenly emerge into view. As the days start to lengthen and temperatures warm, and the winter's rains fill the tributaries of the lake, schools of hitch begin to move upstream to their spawning grounds. The run can begin as early as the beginning of February, and continue as late as May or even June, but "prime time" for hitch most often comes in the month of March. Schools of migrating adults were once almost unimaginably abundant—numbering in the millions if not the billions—but have been greatly reduced in recent years.

 

When a gravid female finds a place she likes—clean gravel bottoms and shallow rapidly flowing water seem to be preferred though this preference is by no means absolute—she begins to swish her body back and forth preparatory to laying her eggs, though no nest is excavated. A cluster of males gathers around her, eager to fertilize them. The spawning adults splash vigorously, with parts of their bodies frequently emerging from the water.

After spawning, the adults do not die as salmon do, but instead make their way back to Clear Lake: it is surmised that the females swim downstream immediately after spawning, but that the males may linger in the creeks in hopes of finding another opportunity to breed.

Immediately after being laid the eggs absorb water, swell to about four times their original size, and sink to the bottom, bound together in thick masses of shiny golden jelly. The roe settles into crevices between the stones, and when conditions are right can be so abundant that the gravel bottom of the creek is largely obscured.
After five to ten days the eggs hatch out into tiny fry that resemble mosquito larvae at first. They stay near the location where they were spawned for another another five to ten days, until they can swim well enough to start moving downstream. The journey back towards Clear Lake takes several weeks, and after reaching the lake the young fish stay near the shoreline for another three months or so before heading out to deep waters, where they remain until they reach breeding age and are ready to begin the cycle all over again.