Salmon / Steelhead Overview


In Washington State as many others, you need to fish for your target specie when and where the are present.  Salmon in unconfined waters are no different.  Pacific Coast salmon are anadromous, which means they are born in fresh water, exit into salt water for most of their lives and return to spawn and die in freshwater.  So for the uninformed, the bulk of salmon in a size that is acceptable to fish for and retain will not be in our coastal water year around, but in northern waters of Alaska or Canada.

I guess first we need to identify the different types of salmon found in this state.   For a picture page   CLICK HERE
     (1) Chinook, otherwise known as King salmon.   In Canada as Springs, and if over 30# is known as a Tyee.  Two common subspecies are Upriver Brights and Tulies.  These are referenced to Columbia river fish.  The URB are destined to return farther upriver, while the Tulies are referenced to being below Bonneville Dam.  Namely fish that spawn closer to the ocean andoriginally from the Toutle River which is a tributary of the Cowlitz river.  For a photo comparison of the two, CLICK HERE.  The upper fish is a URB while the lower one is a Tulie. These were both caugth in the ocean off Westport WA.
     (2) Coho, also known as Silver salmon
     (3) Sockeye, in Alaska known as "Reds", and if landlocked in certain lakes as Kokanee
     (4) Pink, also known as Humpie
     (5) Chum, the technical name is Keta,  many times referred to as Dog salmon

Life Cycles : Under natural conditions, salmon have life cycles of hatching from eggs laid the mature female then fertilized by a male in the gravel bars of rivers in the fall/winter of the year.   From here they, (depending on the specie) either stay in the tributaries for from a week to a year before they migrate downriver & into saltwater.  This saltwater could be Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean.

Below is a pictorial view of the egg to hatched process of Coho Salmon.

Once in saltwater, they tend to follow the food source, but ultimately have a built in guidance system that turns the majority of them right handed which sends them into Canadian and Alaskan waters to spend from 2 to 5 years before they get the mature and the urge to return to the original stream they were born in.   They can find this stream by a very developed sense of smell, where they were imprinted with the smell of this water during the time they spent there before migrating to the sea.

When they return to their home streams, these normal returns for all species are in the fall from August thru December.   They spawn shortly after locating their home streams if conditions are right.

There is a spring return of Chinook to some river systems starting in April, with the Columbia River being the best known.  They also return to some of the other main river systems in the state like the Chehalis and the Cowlitz.   These fish will then remain in the deeper holes during the summer and spawn in late September or early October.

Fishing Seasons Set :  Most of our fishing seasons are geared toward the returning fall fish because they are more in abundance.   Since these fish are migrating from the northern waters down to waters off Washington State they are also targeted by both sports and commercial fishing interests from both Alaska and Canada.  Here is where treaties with other entities have to be honored, otherwise we Washingtonians get only what is left over.

Or ocean and straits seasons are set by estimated returns.   With the actual season coming about by all interested parties, WDFW, sports, and commercial negotiating an agreement as to how the pie is to be split in April at the final North Of Falcon process.

Fish :  Each specie of fish spawn in different areas of any given river or stream.  Some prefer a larger river, while others prefer a smaller stream possibly no wider than 3'.   Also some spawn at different times of the year, however mostly in the fall, but spread out from early September to February.

Each specie also spend different times in the spawning stream after they hatch.   Some like Chum may only spend 2 weeks, to others of a year.

Again each fish may spend a different number of years in the ocean before they return to spawn themselves.  Coho 2 years and Chinook, 3 to 5 years.

Chinook Weight:

1st year: Under 2 lbs and are less than 18" long
2nd year: Close to 5 lbs & 2 feet long
3 years old: 10 to 15 lbs
4 to 7 year olds: largest 15 lbs and up.

Salmon migrate out at the following ages:

Fall Chinook - 3-4 months after being hatched
Spring Chinook, 12-16 months after being hatched
Silver (Coho) - 1 to 2 years after being hatched
Chum- 10 to 30 days after being hatched
Sockeye- 1 to 3 years after being hatched
Pink- 7 to 30 days after being hatched

All data says that pacific coast salmon die after they spawn.  However it is my suspicion that on certain large rivers that are also short enough, have cold enough water with a good flow AND have good spawning gravel close to the ocean, that it is POSSIBLE that salmon, (especially Chinook) could spawn within a couple of days for leaving the saltwater, be swept out to the ocean by a COLD fast running river where they could recover.  The 2 that come to mind would have been the Elwa in Washington state and the Kenai in Alaska.  Both of these rivers have in the past produced very large fish.   I, in talking to a guide in Alaska found out that some of these large Chinook there were 7 and 8 year old fish.   This same guide said that AFG has tried to transplant Kenai eggs into other rivers but have no large fish return as a result of these plants.   Steelhead can return and be repeat spawners, why not salmon under the right conditions?

Hatchery Fish :  There have been salmon hatcheries around for many years (1895), trying to supplement or augment a declining run.  There are also hatcheries that are used as a mitigation tool to supplement the damage a dam may have caused to a existing salmon run in a particular river.

In order to allow us to fish when a specie has been federally declared endangered, the hatchery fish have been adipose fin clipped.  With this fin missing, a sportsman can tell if the fish is Natural or Hatchery before it is removed from the water.  Our regulations only allow us to retain hatchery fish in most circumstances.  Using this fin clipping, we are still fishing instead of being shut down.

This applies to both salmon and steelhead.

Removed adipose fin (hatchery salmon) on top &
a intact adipose fin (wild salmon) on bottom
Healed/re-grown adipose clipped fin

Wild / Hatchery Fish :  Most of us understand the term "WILD", but under these circumstances, it can get convoluted.  The term "Natural" sneaks in here at times.  The problem seems that we have had hatcheries around for so long, that there may not really be any wild stocks there anymore, since the possibility of returning wild fish mating with returning excess hatchery fish.  So it would be about impossible to be able to distinguish one fish from the other, (much less have any wild genetic sampling available) especially after 15 or 20 generations.

Now you get different groups toting their agendas, where sometimes it seems to be the squeaky wheel is the one that gets the grease, even though no scientific data can be presented.

Endangered Fish :  Here the Federal Government steps in (under the Endangered Species Act) determines whether the wild run in a particular river or watershed may have become depleted to where they dictate that this run need to be protected until such time that it has recovered.  When this happens, a time frame for rebuilding is established.  A large river system may have many separate runs where possibly not all are endangered.   With the hatchery fish also in the system, this complicates a viable fishery on one stock while protecting an endangered stock.  

Here is where the adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish enter the situation.  With the hatchery clipped fish, fishermen can differentiate between the unclipped wild/natural and the clipped hatchery fish.  These fish can be all mixed in the river at any given time.  In order to provide a fishery, the fishermen will have to return the wild (unclipped) fish back into the water unharmed.  In many instances these fish can not legally be removed from the water, but have to be released while still in the water and in a timely manner as to reduce any possible mortality resulting from being caught.  

Now in the mix there is a percentage factored into the catch rate whereby a percentage of the catch and release will result in a mortality of those fish.   So the number of one specie of fish available may be considerable, but if the catch/release mortality reaches the estimated ceiling for that specie, then the season will be closed  for all species.

Steelhead :  These fish are in reality a large sea-run Rainbow trout.   Very little is known about their travels after they enter salt water.  This could be partially because since they are not a salmon, or defined as food fish that would normally be encountered in salt water, and not legal for non tribal fishermen to sell commercially, that the WDFW does not allow commercially licensed fishermen to retain them.  Therefore the department has closed a door that otherwise could have been open to them as a research tool for this specie.

These fish are not caught that much in saltwater, but in the rivers.  Many fishermen like to fish the coastal Olympic Peninsula rivers, however there is a good run inland up the Snake and Clearwater Rivers in Idaho.

These fish have the ability to survive after a spawn and can return a few years later to do it again IF conditions are right.  However depending on the distance traveled from the ocean, the stress involved in getting to the spawning area, the majority of them do not survive for a return trip.

Stakeholders :  This, in the present day situations may well include the tribal commercials, non-tribal commercials and the sports segment.   However the sharing is not equal among them, as under the Bolt Decision ruling, the signing tribes get 50% and the non-tribal get the other 50%, which means the non-tribal commercials may get 50% of the 50%, or 25% of the totals, with the sports getting the remaining 25%.

Here the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) is charged with the task of overseeing and establishing guidelines or seasons to ensure this process takes place.  The tribes and WDFW are supposed to be co-managers of the resource.

How the Different Salmon Fight When Hooked :  Many times a experienced fisherman can tell what type of fish is on the end of the line by just how the fish fights.

       Chinook :  These salmon tend to stay lower in the water column than all others.  Most times near the bottom.  When hooked they will usually make one run to the top, break water and you may get a chance to see them momentarily.   After that initial run, they will usually not break water again.  They will make long powerful runs.  When you get them near the boat, they will generally try to get back down toward their safe haven on the bottom.  They will nose down and repeatedly try to dive.

     Coho :  These salmon are just the opposite of Chinook.  They tend to stay in the top 50' of the water column & many times are caught right behind the boat in the prop wash.  When hooked they initially may not break water, but that changes fast.  They will jump, twist and turn numerous times trying to throw the lure.  They can be harder to net at times because they never slow down.

In Alaska, I have seen one actually jump right into the boat (at my feet) while the fisherman was playing the fish.

     Chum :  These fish are a hard fighter, and usually do not break water like Coho do.  However in saltwater when they are bright chrome, one characteristic I have seen is that near the end of the fight they may want to hide under the boat.  Taken in saltwater they sometimes get mistaken for Coho after they are in the fish-box as they are so bright.

Methods of Fishing for Steelhead :  See this Link

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Originated 10-25-06  Last Updated 08-13-2016
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