All About Salmon
Perhaps the most iconic of the fishes local to Oregon waters is the salmon. To the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast, salmon was not only a vital part of the diet but also a source of spiritual guidance, guiding the people to respect ecological systems such as the rivers and tributaries the salmon used for spawning. Salmon were, and still are, expressed in culture, art forms and ceremonial feasts.
The original salmon ceremony, introduced by indigenous tribes on the Pacific coast, consisted of three major parts. First was the welcoming of the first catch and cooking it. Last, the bones were returned to the sea to invite other salmon to give their lives to the people of that village. The salmon remains an important part of the Pacific Northwest Native American tribal culture, as well as a valuable food source for many cultures and visitors to the region.
There are five species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, Chum, Kokanee, Pink and Sockeye. Some are abundant in Oregon; others make a much more limited appearance. A very cool fact about salmon is that they are typically anadromous, which means they hatch in the gravel beds of shallow freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean as adults and live like sea fish, then return to fresh water to reproduce. Rumor has it that the fish return to the exact spot where they hatched to spawn, and scientific studies have shown this to be mostly true.
When spawning, Sockeye salmon heads turn green with black on the snout and upper jaw, and their bodies turn red. They can be 24- to 33- inches long and weight between 5 and 15 pounds. Many sockeye populations require a lake for part of their life cycle.
Only occasionally found in Oregon waters, Pink salmon spawn on odd numbered years and do so very close to saltwater, never going very far upriver. They require gravel to spawn, so too much silt caused by dredging or erosion can cause problems for pinks.
Kokanee can be found at all depths of cold, clear lakes and reservoirs in several parts of Oregon. Kokanee are silvery in color until they are ready to spawn, at which time they become reddish. They do not grow as large as sockeye, their ocean-traversing siblings.
Also called King salmon, Chinook have experienced a serious decline in recent years in the Pacific Northwest. Spawning generally occurs from August to early November for spring Chinook and from October to early March for fall Chinook. Juvenile Chinook will stay in freshwater for the first few months to couple of years of their lives. Afterwards, they will migrate to the Pacific to feed and grow to a size where they can make the trip back inland to spawn in their natal streams. They require clean, well-oxygenated freshwater to spawn. All adults die within two weeks after spawning.
Chum are still holding on in a few small to medium sized rivers along the northern coast of Oregon. Like other salmon species, chum spend most of their lives at sea and return to their natal streams to spawn. Adults are strong swimmers, but poor jumpers and are restricted to spawning areas below barriers, including minor barriers that are easily passed by other kinds of salmon.
When are salmon in season?
The population of wild salmon declined markedly in recent decades, especially wild salmon in the Snake and Columbia River systems in northwestern United States. Because of this, commercial salmon fishing is closely monitored and regulated with various seasons rolling out May through September. Quotas, size regulations and location restrictions help keep the fishery sustainable.
For 2023, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has officially closed fall-run Chinook fishing from Cape Falcon in northern Oregon to the California-Mexico border, after near-record low numbers of the fish, also known as kings, returned to California’s rivers last year. Limited recreational salmon fishing will be allowed off southern Oregon in the fall.
Typically, spring Chinook is the first salmon run of the year. Fish begin arriving in fresh water in late winter and fishing usually peaks in mid- to late-spring. Fall Chinook is the biggest salmon return of the year, and it begins in late summer in the bays and estuaries in late August or early September. These fisheries will begin to move upriver once fall rains have raised river levels enough to draw fish in.
Always carefully check regulations for salmon fishing before you head out on a recreational fishing trip.
Where can I find salmon for purchase or consumption?
Salmon is celebrated as a delicious Oregon fish. Despite declines in salmon numbers in recent years, it’s still common to find salmon on menus and in markets along the coast. Classified as an oily fish, salmon is considered to be healthy due to the fish’s high protein, high omega-3 fatty acids, and high vitamin D content. While there aren’t any salmon farms in Oregon, many salmon are farmed elsewhere and flown into Oregon; be sure to ask your server or chef what is local and sustainable today.
For a salmon dinner with a cultural celebration, don’t miss the Annual Mill-Luck Salmon Celebration at the Mill Casino in Coos Bay. A traditional salmon bake meal is prepared and a celebration conducted with the help of the local Coos and Coquille tribes each September.
Great restaurants abound with salmon on the menu. Try Silver Salmon Grille in Astoria, Grateful Bread Bakery and Restaurant in Pacific City, Roseanna’s in Oceanside, Blackfish Café in Lincoln City. Yachats Brewing makes a mean smoked salmon chowder, Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Market in Lincoln City is famous for salmon jerky, and Tom’s Fish and Chips in Cannon Beach and Seaside offers up delicious salmon fish and chips.
Fun Facts about Salmon
- Salmon are anadromous, or ocean-going, and spend four to five years in the ocean.
- Salmon returning a year earlier than the rest of their year class are called “jacks”.
- Native Nations of the Pacific Northwest define themselves as Salmon People. They consider salmon to be an extremely important gift of food from the Creator, and each year they honor the salmon’s sacrifice in special ceremonies.
- All salmon harvested in Oregon is wild caught. There are no salmon farms in Oregon. Hatchery fish are released at a young age, spend the rest of their life in the wild, and are considered wild-caught.
- In 2019, the Oregon salmon harvest brought in 858,155 pounds of fish, worth nearly $4 million.