Chinook Salmon
Oncorhynchus tshawytscha (Walbaum, 1792)

member of the Salmon Family (Salmonidae)

St. Louis River, St. Louis County, Minnesota 18 September 1997

photo by Konrad Schmidt












What's In a Name?
Chinook salmon: taken from the Chinook Native Americans that were using then as a main food source when they were discovered  

Oncorhynchus (on-co-wren´-cuss) means "hooked snout" in Greek
tshawytscha (shaw´-wits-kah) an old Russian name for this species


    Where Do They Live?
The chinook salmon is an introduced exotic species. Like the coho and pink salmon, chinook salmon normally live in the Pacific Ocean and spawn in streams of eastern Russia and north western United States. In Minnesota, chinook salmon live only in Lake Superior and some of its north shore tributaries. Chinook spend most of their lives in Lake Superior and come into the streams when it is time to spawn. Many attempts were made in the late 1800s to stock chinook in inland lakes of Minnesota. Ultimately, all of these attempts failed.


How Big Do They Get?
How Long Do They Live?
The size of chinook salmon that anglers catch depends on the time of the year they catch them. Chinook caught in the summer commonly range from 450-650 mm (18-26 in) long and weigh about 1.8 kg (4 lbs.). In the fall, most of the chinook caught are 700-900 mm (28-36 in) and weigh about 4.5-5.4 kg (10-12 lbs). Minnesota's state record for Chinook salmon is 15.1 kg (33 lbs. 4 oz). There are two fish that hold the title. One was caught in the Popular River in Cook County and the other was caught in Lake Superior in St. Louis County. one was 110 cm (44 in) long. Chinook salmon commonly live for 3-5 years. One very unusual fish was aged at 9 years old.

    What Do They Eat?
While living in the parent stream, young chinooks consume a variety of terrestrial (land) and aquatic (water) insects and sideswimmers. After moving to Lake Superior, they begin to consume a variety of fish, especially smelt and ciscoes.

What Eats Them?
Eggs and newly hatched alevins often are eaten by sculpins and probably other small fishes. Young chinooks undoubtedly are eaten by larger salmon and lake trout. Large chinook have very little to fear in the way of predators, except for humans.


How Do They Reproduce?
In Minnesota, most of the chinook salmon that return to the North Shore to spawn are 3-5 years old. Typically they move near shore in mid-September and wait for October rains before they run up the streams. Actual spawning usually occurs in October and sometimes into early November. Just before the spawning season the appearance of the males changes. Their jaws become hook shaped, their bellies turn a darker shade, and their bodies turn a rusty color.As with other salmon, females excavate (scoop out) nests in the gravel bottoms. Each female pairs up with a large dominant male and sometimes a couple of lesser males. They lay side by side, the female lays her eggs, and the males then fertilize them. The female covers the eggs with the gravel she removed for the nest. This is repeated a few more times until the female has deposited all of her eggs. A single female typically lays 2,000-4,000 eggs, depending on her size. The adults die shortly after spawning.

The eggs hatch in the spring and the alevins (free-swimming embryos) spend 2-3 more weeks in the gravel before they swim up and begin to feed. In the west coast streams chinooks remain in the stream for 1 to 2 years before they migrate to the ocean. In North Shore streams, most young chinook migrate to the lake with in a few weeks after swimming up. Chinook reproduction in North Shore streams is extremely low at present.


Conservation and Management
Chinook salmon are an important part of the Lake Superior sport fishery. However, the fall spawning runs began declining in the mid-1980s. By the late 1990s the runs were so small that Department of Natural Resources could not get enough eggs to maintain their rearing program. The Department of Natural Resources is now using eggs from Lake Huron to try to rebuild the fall spawning run. For the past several years though, offshore summer fishing has been awesome!




Permission is granted for the non-commercial educational or scientific use of the text and images on this Web document. Please credit the author or authors listed below.

Photographs by Konrad P. Schmidt
Text by Ted Halpern, Nicole Paulson & Jay T. Hatch in cooperation with
the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' MinnAqua Aquatic Program

This page developed with funds from the
MinnAqua Program (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Fisheries)
and the
Sport Fish Restoration Program (Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior)

Maintained by Jay T. Hatch
General College and James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/St. Paul

Last updated 23 October 2002