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Photo: Chinook Salmon
Chinook salmon spawn in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River.

Graphic: What About Chinook Salmon?

Graphic: Background Information...

What is a chinook salmon?
Salmon are close relatives of trout. They have silvery, streamlined bodies with fine scales designed to move easily through water. Salmon are anadromous fish, which means they migrate upriver from the sea to spawn in fresh water. Five different species of Pacific salmon exist: chinook, coho, chum, pink, and sockeye, in addition to steelhead trout, which also are anadromous. Fall chinook salmon, a native fish that spawns in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, is an important species in the Columbia Basin. Sport, tribal, and commercial fisheries value this fish because of its abundance and because it retains its color and high oil content throughout much of its upstream spawning migration.

What do chinook salmon look like?
Chinook salmon, also called king salmon, are the largest of the Pacific salmon species. Usually black on their backs with silvery sides and white bellies, they change color to bright red as they mature. As adults, chinook salmon can range from 16 to 60 inches in length and weigh as much as 100 pounds. The average adult weighs about 25 pounds.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

How do chinook salmon live?
Columbia River chinook salmon are born in flowing fresh waters, including most of the Hanford Reach. Over the winter, embryos develop in rock nests called redds and hatch into inch-long fish called alevins. Alevins have a yolk sac attached to their bellies that provides nutrients during the first weeks of life. Alevins hide in river gravel until the yolk sac is gone. Then, from March through May, the young fish emerge as fry and eat insect larvae and small crustaceans called water fleas. Fry also become food for larger fish and many birds such as great blue herons and terns. Salmon fry remain in the river and backwater areas for a short time before migrating down river to the sea in late June and July. During their migration, the young salmon face many dangers, including predatory fish and hydropower dams that can injure or kill them.

Fall chinook salmon live in the Pacific Ocean from one to five years, feeding on zooplankton, shrimp, anchovies, herring, and other fish. When fully grown, they migrate back up the Columbia River to spawning areas in the Hanford Reach and lower Snake River. This occurs from mid-August through October. When the salmon begin their upriver spawning migration, they stop eating. The sides and backs of their bodies turn red, and the tops of their heads turn olive brown. The male salmon grow hooked jaws and develop sharp teeth. Fishermen catch many of these returning salmon because the fish strike at the shiny lures. When fish not caught or killed reach spawning areas in late October to late November, females dig nests in the gravel with their tails. They deposit eggs in the nest, and the males fertilize them. After spawning, adult fish swim near shore and die. Bald eagles wintering on the Hanford Reach, along with other predators and scavengers, feed on these salmon. The salmon bodies also provide nutrients for aquatic insects that nourish the new salmon fry once they hatch.

Graphic: Notes... "Historically, fall chinook salmon spawned in the main stem Columbia River from near The Dalles, Oregon, to the Pend Oreille River in Idaho, a distance of nearly 560 miles. Today, however, the 51-mile Hanford Reach is the only significant spawning habitat that remains for the upriver bright race of fall chinook salmon in the main stem Columbia River. Scientists have conducted aerial surveys of salmon spawning in the Reach since 1948. The numbers of visible redds (nests) have ranged from a low of 65 in 1955 to a high of 8,630 in 1987. The increase in recent years reflects an increase, in part, of efforts to supplement wild fish populations with hatchery-raised fish.

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

Chinook salmon are one of six anadromous salmonid species found in the Pacific Northwest. What are the names and distinguishing characteristics of the other salmonid species? What salmonid species traditionally spawned in the Columbia, Snake and/or Yakima rivers? What months do they spawn? How long do their young stay in the river? How long do the adults spend in the ocean? Find out what species are migrating by calling or visiting a local dam or by checking your local newspaper's sports page. Create a chart so you can track the number and type of species migrating during the year. You can also check with your state Fish and Wildlife Department to find out the number of salmon caught in every river in the state.

Fish printing is a fun and easy way to combine art and science. Fish prints work best with fish with large scales. To make a print you need a fish, paint, paper, newspaper, and paint brushes. Gently wipe the fish from head to tail to remove any slime. Be careful not to damage the gills, scales, or fins. Lay the fish flat on the newspaper and gently coat one side with just enough paint so you can still see the outline of the scales. It is best to brush on the paint in one direction - toward the tail so that you don't disturb the scales. Cover the body and fins with paint but be careful not to paint the eye. Slowly cover the fish with a clean sheet of paper and press down gently, feeling for the fish's anatomy. Try not to wiggle the paper. Slowly pick up the paper and place it in a safe area to dry. Later you can paint the eye and add a background design. You might want to find out the natural habitat of your fish and include other animals and plants from this habitat in your painting.

Travel to a salmon or trout hatchery. Visit the hatcheries at Priest Rapids Dam, Lyons Ferry, or choose one close to where you live. Many hatcheries collect migrating salmon and spawn them to supplement the number of wild fish in the rivers. If you call ahead you might be able to work with the wildlife agents tagging salmon or get involved in the artificial spawning process.

Graphic: Using Community Resources...

  1. Travel to the visitor centers at Ice Harbor and McNary dams.
    The Ice Harbor Dam visitor center has a viewing area where you can watch the fish pass through, and McNary Dam has two fish-viewing rooms along the fish ladders. Try to identify salmon. Look at the center's exhibits of the life cycle of Pacific salmon. McNary Dam also has a film presentation and interactive computers.
  2. Arrange for a fisheries biologist to come to your classroom.
    Call the Department of Fish and Wildlife (360) 902-2200; the Lyons Ferry Trout Hatchery (509)-646-3252. You also could call fisheries biologists Dave Geist (372-0590) or Dennis Dauble (376-3631) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

Graphic: Other Resources...

  1. Hydromania II, Journey of the Oncorhynchus, Bonneville Power Administration, Portland, Oregon (1-800-622-4520).
  2. Project Wild Aquatic: Where Have All the Salmon Gone? Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (Anadromous Programs, 600 Capital Way N., Olympia, Washington 98501-1091).
  3. Raising Salmon in Your Classroom, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (Anadromous Programs, 600 Capital Way N., Olympia, Washington 98501-1091).
  4. Magic School Bus Goes Upstream: A Book About Salmon on Migration (Magic School Bus Series), 1997, Joanna Cole, Scholastic Trade, New York.
  5. The Prince and the Salmon People, 1993, Claire Rudolf Murphy, Rizzoli Publications, New York.
  6. Salmon Story (A Redfeather Book), 1995, Brenda Z. Guiberson, Henry Holt, New York.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Five Counties Salmonid Conservation Program -
  2. NOAA Office of Protected Species -
  3. Seymour Salmonid Society -
  4. University of Washington Columbia Basin Research -

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

Initial development and printing of this fact sheet was funded by an Eisenhower Grant to the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Written by Marilyn Fike; Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design; First Printing: December 1997; Web Development: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series


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