Chinook Salmon Fact Page | Where to Find | Lures | Records | Photos

Adult male Chinook salmon with green-tinted dorsum, silver laterals (sides), and white venter. Image for Identification purposes.
Adult male Chinook salmon with green-tinted dorsum, silver laterals (sides), and white venter. Saltwater phase.

Chinook Salmon Information | Facts

Info | Where to Find? | Lures | Records | Photos

[Page updated: 25 Septemeber 2019]

What Ratings Do Chinook Salmon Get?

Size: 8/10  Fight: 8/10  Difficulty to Catch: 8/10  Taste: 10/10 – incredibly delicious!


CHINOOK SALMON INFO

COMMON NAMES: Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is also known by these names: king salmon; spring salmon, chub salmon, lox, smilie, Quinnat (in New Zealand, where they have been introduced), Tyee, black-mouth (due to their black gum-line); tschawytscha (species name); chin; kings; magnum; shaker. In Denmark: Kongelaks. Finland: Kuningaslohi. France: Saumon royal and Saumon du Pacifique. Germany: Königslachs. Japan: Masunosuke. Poland: Czawycza. Russia: Chavycha. Sweden: Kungslax.

ORIGIN OF NAME: The name Chinook was taken from the Chinook Indians who lived on the coast of what is now Washington State.

SPECIES: Chinook salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, was classified by German naturalist and taxonomist Johann Julius Walbaum in 1792.

APPEARANCE: Adult Chinook salmon are the largest salmon in the genus Oncorhynchus. Usually called ‘King Salmon,” Chinook grow to lengths and weights far exceeding other salmon. The largest salmon in the world is a Chinook salmon weighing 126 lbs. caught in a commercial fishing net in Rivers Inlet, British Columbia, Canada. The largest salmon caught by rod and reel was 97 lbs., also a Chinook.

King Salmon are typically bluish-green, reddish, or some shade of purple on the top dorsal area and top of the head. The rest of the king is predominantly silver with white or creme ventrals. Black dots appear sporadically on the tail and the dorsal area. Called black mouths in some regions, the king has a black gum and entire mouth.

Chinook salmon can be differentiated by differences in body morphology such as counting the rays in the anal fin (near the anus). Chinook have 15-17 rays.

AVERAGE ADULT LENGTH: Average length for adult Chinook, depending on the area, is around 20-36 inches ( cm)  but much larger fish around 5 feet long occur in catches yearly. they average 10 to 50 lb (4.5 to 22.7 kg)

AVERAGE ADULT WEIGHT: Typical weight for adult Chinook salmon is between 8-50 lbs. ( kg.) Salmon world records are here.

RANGE: Originally, as far as history records, Chinook salmon have been located in the Pacific Northwest area of the United States and north to Alaska and Russia, even down to Japan. They also extend down the western US coast to Monterey Bay, California. Chinook have since been introduced in other parts of the world to see if populations would take hold. Chinook salmon can now be found in South America (Patagonia region), and even New Zealand where, after multiple attempts, fish now are making spawning runs up some of the rivers.

HABITAT: Chinook begin life on a calm river or lake bottoms where they grow quickly. Once ready to make the trip, they travel downstream to reach the open ocean and begin a 4-year development cycle whereupon they’re ready to spawn. At that point, they travel back up the same (ideally) freshwater channels to the place they started, and females lay eggs and males cover the eggs in sperm clouds. Sometimes more than one male will spray the eggs.

School of Chinook salmon in ocean, showing silver sides (lateral) and greenish tint.
School of Chinook salmon in the ocean – showing saltwater characteristics.

IDEAL WATER TEMPERATURE RANGE: Chinook salmon prefer colder water, as you might imagine, living in the north naturally, and transplanted to coldwater lakes around the USA. Ideal water temperature for Chinook is in the range of 50‐57 ºF (10‐14 ºC)

DIET: Sac fry (alevin) when first hatched, will feed on the egg sacs and the small bit of yolk that remains. Sac fry remain in the nest during this period, growing quickly.

Fry Chinooks leave the next to find food and eat primarily zooplankton. 

Parr Chinook have been feeding on zooplankton for a few months and are in the next stage they’ll develop in for a couple of months. Parr salmon eat invertebrates (no backbone) for the next months until they change into smolt.

Smolt Chinook salmon are ready to get into their primary saltwater environment and their bodies go through changes to allow them to deal with the salinity they’ll encounter in the ocean. Scales turn yellow and the young salmon begin eating smaller fish.

Post-smolt Chinooks are also eating small fish primarily.

Adult Chinook will eat smaller fish primarily, and that is their target from the time they begin to mature. Any sort of baitfish found in the northwest for Chinook in that area – will work for bait while ocean fishing. Chinook will also eat crabs, and other crustaceans and worms. Chinook on the east coast will eat alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)almost exclusively when given the chance. These are small silver fish resembling mullet in some ways. They grow to 40 cm. but are typically 25 cm.

PREDATORS: Juvenile Chinook salmon have more predators, and it’s a struggle to make it to adulthood (spawning age). Small Chinook must watch out for bigger fish (northern pike for instance!), fish-eating birds, and mammals like otters. For adults, their primary adversary is human beings, we take hundreds of thousands of salmon during spawning months. They’ll die anyway in most cases, so it’s a nice relationship between us! Of course, there are salmon taken by bear each year, but it doesn’t compare at all to the amount of Chinook humans take each year.

Another pest adult salmon are attacked by is the ‘sea lamprey’ (Petromyzon marinus). Sea lampreys can kill around forty pounds of salmon in the year-and-a-half they’re alive. These are parasites which attach to primarily salmon and trout in the Atlantic Ocean and great lakes. Their round mouth is jawless and filled with razor-sharp teeth for cutting into the flesh of the fish. The tongue is razor-sharp and can cut through scales and flesh to start the fluids seeping, assisted by a substance which inhibits clotting – so the blood keeps flowing. The sea lamprey lives off the blood and other fluids of the salmon, usually causing the salmon’s death in the end. It’s really a nightmarish fish!

Weirdly enough, in the Atlantic, sea lampreys co-exist with their hosts – taking some fluids and letting go to find the next. In the Great Lakes of the USA – the sea lampreys usually hold on until the host dies. Sea lampreys have been in all the Great Lakes since 1938.

REPRODUCTION – Chinook salmon are anadromous – they migrate from the open ocean up freshwater channels (streams, rivers) to spawn when they are adults (4-8 yrs.). All Chinook salmon are said to die in the place they spawn.

Dark hues of male Chinook salmon in spawn. Darker body, bright red rear lateral, and jaw changes - all expressions of sexual dimorphism during spawning in Chinook.
Dramatic change in males during spawning. Compare and contrast to the male Chinook salmon at the top of this page. Sexual dimorphism occurs – changes in teeth, jaw structure, and most obviously – color.

King salmon mature after 4-8 years when they begin their journey up brackish, then freshwater channels to their place of hatching. Males develop a hook in the jaw, fierce-looking teeth, and overall color changes dramatically as they enter freshwater for their journey upstream (see image above).

Females make nests called “redds” and remain there from September to December. Once eggs are laid, females move light gravel over them to protect them from predators. Eggs may number bIn addition, females remain on the redd to guard the eggs before they expire. Depending on water temperature, from 90-150 days pass while the eggs develop into young Chinook salmon.

MORE INFO ON CHINOOK SALMON

Chinook salmon are the biggest salmon in the world, and are frequently called “King Salmon.”

Conservation of Chinook Salmon

There are conservation efforts all over the world to help increase the number of Chinook salmon in our oceans. The most common form of help comes in the way of relocating fertile eggs from streams in the Pacific Northwest to locations such as South America and New Zealand, as well as lakes all over the United States – especially the Great Lakes.

Some populations of Chinook salmon are protected under the United States Endangered Species Act – classified as “threatened” and “endangered.”

Juvenile (fingerling) Chinook salmon compared to steelhead trout.
Which one is the steelhead trout, and which is the fingerling Chinook salmon? The one on the right is the Chinook.

Chinook and other salmon populations are closely monitored yearly to ascertain if canceling the season each year could help the salmon in subsequent years. Populations are plummeting due to many changes in the ocean water including warming saltwater and low food density. Fishing for Chinook salmon and really any fish should be looked at as a privilege. We need to keep these studies funded so populations can again flourish. Your fishing license fees help with funding salmon studies.


WHERE TO FIND KING SALMON?

King Salmon (Chinook) worldwide range covering United States, Asia, New Zealand, and South America.
King Salmon (Chinook) worldwide range covering United States, Asia, New Zealand, and South America.

Check the international range map for Chinook salmon above, click to enlarge. Chinook salmon are found across an extensive range internationally.

Where Are Chinook Salmon Found?

The Columbia River is probably the best place to find chum salmon and is frequently cited in studies and by anglers targeting the species.

USA

  • From the Mackenzie River (arctic) to the southern limit of Tillamook Bay, OR.;
  • San Lorenzo River by Santa Cruz, CA.;
  • Sacramento River, CA.
  • Lagunitas Creek, San Francisco, CA.
  • The Great Lakes – all of them
  • Washington State Rivers: Green,  Snohomish rivers

Canada

  • British Columbia Rivers: Stave, and anything coming off the ocean.

Arctic Ocean

  • from Laptev Sea and inland

North Pacific

  • Bering Sea
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Okhotsk Sea


CHINOOK SALMON LURES

Because Chinook salmon are the BIGGEST salmon in the world, they offer an amazing sportsman challenge and once hooked, you can be in for 30 minutes of fighting before you’re able to reel it in and net it. Chinook can get regularly around 30-50 lbs. so you’d best be prepared with some strong lures, strong line, and some determination.

You’ll be fishing for Chinook in late summer and early fall when the big kings return to their home in the freshwater streams and rivers to spawn.

First, some key points. King salmon are typically on the bottom of whatever channel you’re fishing. So, get the lure down there where they are. Second, fish slowly. These fish travel hundreds of miles and don’t really have a fast burst of speed left in them, so bring the lure in slow and steady and bop them on the head with it if possible. They’re big, aggressive fish when faced with a meal – and they’ll hit your artificial lures hard.

IF you have the right lures. Right line. Right reel. Right rod.

I’d use one of the Baitcasting reels and rods I mention on our GEAR PAGE. I’d use the PowerPro line most likely – and I’d go for the heavy stuff – 65 lb. test just to make sure. There are plenty of 50-lb. Chinooks out there – and your 30 lb. test is going to prove woefully inadequate should you be lucky enough to hook one, then unlucky enough to watch the line go slack.

RECOMMENDED CHINOOK LURE #1

In shallow water, you can go right for the tried and true – the lure that probably has caught more fish since its creation, than any other lure in existence.

The SILVER SPOON! Pulling a big silver spoon through the river or stream will often entice a Chinook king salmon bite. When the king hits, set the hook – and don’t be shy about it. The mouths of these beasts are strong, and many times the hook is lost because the angler didn’t give it a firm set.

Two Ideal Silver Spoons that Smash Them:

RECOMMENDED CHINOOK SALMON LURE #2

J-Plugs, plain and simple. You probably don’t need to bring anything but these couple styles of lures with you on your quest for big king salmon. This is what most people use, well, most people who are catching fish.

As usual, you’ll need to figure out which colors are hitting – and use them. Here’s another trick – bring sharpie permanent markers with you so you can change light-colored plugs to say, green if green is the flavor of the day and everyone’s smashing them on green J-Plugs and all you have is white or creme.

Here are our 3 Recommended Chinook J-Plugs. Don’t forget to grab some white ones too, and get some Sharpie permanent markers! And, get some rattle-plugs – the ones that make noise – it gets their attention.

Silver Horde 4″ rattle plug with cupped face

3 shades of green, and a couple of white.

Silver Horde 5″ rattle plug with cupped face

3 shades of green, and a couple of white

When you color your lures with the sharpie, start with a light green, try it. If not working, go a bit darker… this way you can try different hues rather than coloring with dark green to start, and you cannot go back to light green.


Male Chinook salmon found in freshwater - illustrative drawing showing phase and morphology.
A male freshwater Chinook salmon illustrated showing possible coloration. The freshwater phase differs dramatically from the saltwater phase.
Ocean Chinook salmon identification graphic for saltwater phase showing morphology and color.
Saltwater Chinook salmon before entering freshwater for spawning run.

CHINOOK RECORDS

There are Chinook salmon records recorded by state organizations which have separate record-holders based on gender, age, and tackle type used to land the Chinook. We list the biggest king salmon in the world, and also from states in the USA.

World Record and Alaska State Record Chinook salmon caught with rod/reel/line was 97 lbs. 4-oz. and was caught by Les Anderson on May 17, 1985, on the Kenai River, in Alaska. Les was 68 yrs. old at the time.

Washington State, USA Chinook Salmon Record – held by Chet Gausta. This big king salmon was 70 lbs. 8-oz and was caught at Pillar Point about 8 miles east of Sekiu, Washington. Guess what rating his line was? 12 lb.! This record was set September 6, 1964.

Oregon, USA State Chinook Salmon Record – Mr. Ernie St. Claire is the angler who caught the biggest salmon in Oregon in the year 1910. The big chinook salmon was 83 lbs. and it was pulled from the Umpqua River, Oregon (near Scottsburg on the southern Oregon coast).


PHOTOS

More photos coming – we are constantly updating this page and this website. Hold tight!

CHINOOK SALMON SCIENTIFIC CLASSIFICATION

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Salmoniformes
Family: Salmonidae
Genus: Oncorhynchus
Species: O. tshawytscha (Johann Julius Walbaum, 1792)

Full species name: Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

Resources – these are some of the resources used in creating this ultimate guide for Chinook (King) Salmon, in addition to dozens of studies, slide presentations, videos, and charts and graphs.

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/p
  • US Geographical
  • Survey
  • Alaska, Washington, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissions