SHASTA LAKE, California—Thigh-deep inside a holding tank, wearing his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform and waders, Beau Hopkins had to bend over to scoop each netful of squiggling baby salmon. One tank held 40,000 babies. By midafternoon Hopkins had been at it for two and a half hours: three tanks emptied, one more to go.

In the background rose the slope of Shasta Dam, the massive concrete construction that restrains the Sacramento River on its course to the Pacific Ocean. But the hurried campaign for which Hopkins had been pressed into service was remarkably rudimentary: a sort of bucket brigade of men and women passing salmon-heavy scooping nets, one by one, up to the trucks that would give the baby salmon—about 600,000 before the job was done—a lifesaving ride into town.

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Hopkins stretched, made a rueful joke about visiting his chiropractor, and shoved his net back in. Wherever he dipped, the water was dark with squiggling. Each time he pulled up, the net shone with the wet silver and black of hundreds of four-inch (ten-centimeter) salmon, crammed together and panicky-looking. Juveniles, the experts call them; really they're not so much babies as prepubescents, on the verge of the mysterious internal triggering that makes them want to go look for the sea.

But they can't get to the sea from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery on their own, and so every winter, in a wondrous tableau of colliding public priorities, this hatchery is one of the Western venues where diesel-powered trucks chug live little salmon from one place to another, circumventing dams we humans have put in the way of the fish.

This month, as they undertook their salmon-lift for the winter run of California's Chinook, better known as king salmon, state and national fishery officials encouraged a few outsiders to visit Livingston Stone and watch—because drought decimated last year's winter run, and the ongoing drought could decimate this year's. Hatchery workers, hoping an extraordinary boost might help, were tripling the number of young fish they normally load into their trucks.

If you had found yourself on a certain road through the conifers about four hours north of Sacramento late that February afternoon, you might have encountered our small, solemn, fish-ferrying caravan: several dozen people from government agencies (the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), a mini-posse of reporters, and two tanker trucks that for the moment amounted to giant aquariums on wheels.

We had no fancy escort, though. It was dusk by the time we rolled out of the hatchery, and unless you understood what was happening—unless you are one of the biologists and fish experts who use words like "miraculous" when describing the extraordinary life journey of the California Chinook salmon, imperiled by man and now doubly imperiled by weather—you would likely have paid us no mind.  

A Miraculous Journey

Here's how the miracle begins, when things are going as they're supposed to in the wild: The baby Chinook, one of the five main salmon varieties in the West, hatches from an egg that its fish parents buried in the gravel of a cold-water river before they perished. The cold part is crucial; the water's got to stay below about 60°F (15.5°C).

When the first mystery cue comes—Time to go!—the now-juveniles prepare not only to leave home, but also to change into saltwater fish. Even at tremendous distance, biologists say, they can somehow sense the sea. They want the sea. Water currents, smell, and instinct propel the Chinooks downstream, swimming for weeks toward brackish water, risking attack by birds and bigger fish, until they reach—those that survive the journey—the open ocean.

That's just downstream. The return trip requires battling the current, not to mention more predators. By the time the salmon are back into river water—those that survive the journey—they have retransformed themselves into freshwater fish and find their way exactly home to produce a new generation and die. It is like grand opera.

"Three years in the Pacific!" cried Andrew Hughan, one of the state Fish and Wildlife spokespeople who led us through the high gates of Livingston Stone. "Then they have to turn around and swim back! At the end of the day, we really don't know why they do it. But they will come back and spawn in the same waters where they were spawned. It's unbelievably fascinating."

Hatchery Workers Triple Down

Wild fish hatcheries (not farms to grow fish for food, that is, but egg-cultivating operations to raise fish for release into the wild) exist because people want wild fish—to eat, to hunt, to cherish as part of the ecosystem—and also want agriculture and urban development, both of which require taking some of those wild fishes' water.

The construction of Shasta Dam and the smaller Keswick Dam nearby, back in the 1940s, was part of a vast project redirecting California's river waters to ambitious human endeavors all over the state. The two dams truncated California Chinook migration routes, which had connected high mountain tributaries to the sea. Now the salmon must start and end their lives in the chilly water just below Keswick, the lower of the two dams.  

The Livingston Stone hatchery, with its outdoor tanks and long buildings lined with incubator trays, is supposed to bolster those seasonal migrations—especially in winter, when for decades now, California Chinook runs have been low enough to warrant Endangered Species Act protection even during non-drought years. (The hatchery is named for a visionary federal fisheries official and vigorous advocate for preserving salmon runs who asked in a 1892 speech: "What hope is there for the salmon in the end?")

Most years, hatchery workers drive to Keswick and pull about 120 adult fish from a special live trap in the spawning waters. Like in vitro fertilization doctors in hatchery gear, the workers fertilize the eggs in lab trays at Livingston Stone, test them for genetic diversity, and incubate the young. Then they send those tanker trucks back to the spawning grounds to add thousands of new juveniles to the young salmon emerging naturally from the riverbed, all awaiting the summons of the sea.  

The California drought, the state's worst on record, has taken a terrible toll on those already-diminished winter Chinook salmon runs.

It's not just that there isn't enough water; there's not enough cold water, especially after competing interests such as urban areas and big agriculture—each equipped with more political muscle than wild salmon advocates have—take their share. In 2014, the returning winter Chinook numbers were the worst that fishery officials had ever seen. In a normal year, about 25 percent of the eggs produce baby salmon healthy enough to migrate; last year, with only 5 percent surviving their infancy in the unusually warm water, nearly the whole winter run was wiped out.      

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