Know Your Fish - Chinook Salmon

Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

Ocean Phase Identification Characteristics:

  • Typical silvery sides common to all Pacific salmon
  • Bluish-green on the back
  • White to silvery-white on the belly
  • Many black spots on head, top of back, and entire dorsal
  • BOTH upper and lower part of tail fin have spots
  • Few spots on fins
  • Inside of mouth and gums are dark gray to black.
    Spawning Phase Identification Characteristics:

  • Olive brown to dark brown in color, almost black on back and sides
  • Males develop typical hooked snout
    Identification Characteristics:

  • Olive brown to dark brown in color, almost black on back and sides
  • Many spots on it's back
  • Few spots on fins
  • BOTH upper and lower part of tail fin have spots
  • Lower gum line is black

  • Range in length from 24 to 60 inches
  • Freshwater record: 68.26 lbs, Mark Salmon, Elochoman River, Wahkiakum Co., 10/5/92
  • Saltwater record: 70.50 lbs, Chet Gausta, Sekiu, Clallum Co., 9/6/64

    First and foremost among salmon-fishing trophies is, of course, the chinook. Chinook are the largest of the Pacific salmon, occasionally growing to over 5 feet and 120 pounds, which is part of the reason for their nickname, king salmon. They are the largest of the species and they also live the longest. They are also commonly referred to as "blackmouth" because of the black gum line that anglers use to help identify them. However, the term "blackmouth" is generally reserved for immature feeder chinook resident in Puget Sound.

    Chinook may be found migrating upriver almost any month of the year, but they favor the spring and fall. Their life in the ocean is not as firmly set as the other species of salmon and mature chinook can range from three to eight years of age. The majority are four to five years old when they spawn and range in weight from 15 to 40 pounds. Some monster fish have been caught in both the commercial, 120 pounds, and sports fisheries, 70 pounds.

    Although the biggest saltwater kings are caught in summer and early fall when mature salmon move toward freshwater spawning grounds, Washington offers saltwater chinook fishing all year long. Productive saltwater fishing techniques for chinook include trolling or mooching (drifting) with herring, jigging with any of several baitfish-imitating metal jigs, or trolling with plugs, spoons, plastic squid, or other artificial lures. Fishing near the bottom is often the key to success.

    Besides the well-known saltwater chinook fisheries that exist on the coast, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands, and Puget Sound, chinook also provide some great freshwater angling action. Spring and fall chinook fisheries in the Cowlitz, Lewis and other coastal rivers around Forks, Washington, including the Hoh, Quillayute, and Sol Duc, are very popular with anglers. Freshwater chinook-fishing techniques are similar to those used for steelhead, except most anglers prefer heavier tackle for these bruisers. Chinook are not easily seen in their spawning grounds because they normally choose deeper spawning waters. Unlike the other Pacific salmon (coho, chum, pink, and sockeye), their body shape does not change much during spawning. Their color generally turns from the bright silver of ocean life to a dark brown, or almost a black, when they enter fresh water for spawning.

    For more information about Washington State's game fish you can download these PDF files: Pacific salmon identification (1446KB), trout and salmon identification (560KB), and selected game fish (2553KB). To read these files you will need the free Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader that you can obtain from Adobe's PDF Reader web page.

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