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.


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.


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