Chinook Salmon Biology and Facts


AKA: king salmon, spring salmon, tyee, quinnat, tule, blackmouth;
French: saumon chinook, saumon royal;
Japanese: masunosuke

Average lifespan in the wild: 3 to 8 years

Size: Up to 58 in (147 cm)

Weight: 5 to 126 lbs (2.3 to 57.3 kg)

Did you know? The current sport caught World Record is 97 pounds 4 ounces (44.1 kg) and was caught in May 1985 by Les Anderson in the Kenai River (Kenai, Alaska) . The commercial catch world record is 126 pounds (57 kg) caught in British Columbia in the late 70’s.Chinook Salmon are called King salmon by most Americans.

The chinook salmon has a significant place in the world of sport and commercial fishing, especially on the Pacific coast of North America. It has long been regarded as a food staple to the native tribes, and has therefore held a significant cultural place. It is the largest of the Salmonidae family, yet the least common of the Pacific salmon genus Oncorhynchus.

The chinook is an anadromous species, meaning it can adapt to both salt and fresh water living. It can even live solely in freshwater, as demonstrated by the successful transplant of the species to the Great Lakes of North America. In fact, this transplant has been considered one of the greatest fish transplants of a fish species.

Due to changes in its environment and human actions such as dams, habit alteration, pollution, and commercial overfishing, some runs of chinook in the Pacific Northwest have been placed on the threatened or endangered species list.

Anglers find that the chinook is a strong and hard-fighting fish, but not in an acrobatic way. They rarely jump out of the water. Instead, they dive deep and can take a long while to reel in. Sea-run chinook can have either red or white meat. Red meat is the most desirable on the market, despite white meat being a lot rarer. The most common ways it is sold is fresh, frozen, canned or smoked. It is considered to have a great taste in all its forms.



Chinook have a longer body with a conical head. For the better part of its life, its color stays a dark grey/blue on the top with silver sides and belly. They also have black spots on their upper half, top of the head and fins. Upon returning to fresh water to spawn, chinook will turn different colors depending on a variety of biological and environmental factors. They can turn red, copper, olive brown or black. Males are more strongly colored than females, and can be identified by their hooked nose and upper jaw. Young salmon have 6 to 12 parr marks, and no spots on the dorsal fin.

A unique trait of the chinook is its black gums and mouth.


In Northwest North America, the average chinook size is 30 lbs. and in other areas closer to 20. The largest recorded commercial catch was a 126 lb. chinook in 1949 in Alaska. The sport record is a 97 lb. fish caught in the Kenai River in Alaska. Chinook transported to the Great Lakes are much smaller on average and the record is less than 50 lbs.


Chinook are native to most of the Pacific rim. On the Asian side, they range from northern Japan to the former USSR. In North America, they range from southern California to the tip of Alaska. The highest population is found on the coast of British Columbia, Canada and Alaska. The run sizes for most rivers in Alaska have been declining the past decade. The Columbia River recent run sizes are equal or better to that of 1950.(As far back as people have been counting)

There many smaller river populations along the west coast that are significant. Scientists believe there are at least a thousand spawning populations along the Northwest coast of North America,

Chinook have been introduced to various areas of the world with limited success: the American Atlantic and Great Lakes, South America, Europe and the South Pacific. Only in the Great Lakes and the New Zealand have populations been able to self-sustain. To some extent, Chile has had some success as well. Chinook also live in some inland lakes around the world.

Life cycle and typical behaviors:

As with all Pacific salmon, chinook are anadromous. They are hatched in rivers; spend most of their life in the ocean and return to spawn in their rivers of origin. Freshwater chinook that have been transplanted hatch in tributaries, migrate out to lakes and return to the rivers to spawn. All chinook die after spawning.

Scientists are still unsure about the chinook’s range. Some think that North American chinook don’t go more than 1,000 km from their natal river, and that Alaskan chinook go further than other populations.

Great Lake chinook migrate several miles from their natal river, in search of food and due to changes in temperature. Warmer temperatures drive the fish to the deeper cooler areas of lakes, and feeding fish are also located there.


Sea-run chinook reach sexual maturity between their 2nd and 7th year and this creates a disparity in the size of fish in spawning runs. Females usually take longer to mature and are mostly outnumbered by males. Freshwater chinook are mature at a younger age, but live only four or five years. Small chinook who reach sexual maturity after only one winter in the ocean or lake are usually males and referred to as “jacks”.

Migration periods vary. Streams in Alaska usually only get one run between may and July. Rivers in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California have runs between August and October, usually, but can also have spring runs.

Chinook in the coastal region many times take long migrations to reach their home. For example, chinook in the Yukon will travel up to 2,000 miles through the river in 60 days. On the other hand, some Great Lake populations only travel a few miles of river and fail to spawn successfully.

Chinook will not feed during their spawning migration, so they gradually get frailer. During the run, they use their body weight for energy and to produce reproductive cells. Females deposit 3-14 thousand eggs in several nests made of gravel (also known as redds), which they dig in deep moving water. Eggs will usually hatch in late winter or early spring, depending on conditions. The alevins (freshly hatched fish) live in the gravel for several weeks and consume their yolk sacs. They then reach the fry stage and come out of the gravel by early spring. Most young chinook stay in their natal water for a whole year, when they swim for the ocean. In this stage, they are called smolts.

Eating habits:

Young chinook in freshwater feed on plankton and insects. When they reach the ocean, their diet consists of herring, pilchards, sand lance, squid and crustaceans. At this stage, chinook grow incredibly fast and can double their weight in a single summer. Chinook that live only in freshwater also eat plankton and insects in their youth and baitfish once they reach maturity (usually alewives and smelt). Chinook were actually introduced to keep populations of baitfish.