The largest member of the salmon family and both the largest and least abundant member of the Pacific salmon genus, the Chinook salmon is blue-green on the back and top of the head with silvery sides and white ventral surfaces. It has black spots on its tail and the upper half of its body. As with all Pacific salmon, the Chinook undergoes a physical transformation during spawning—males develop a hooked jaw or “kype” and their back coloration transitions from bright silver to dark olive, shading to an iridescent red at the flanks.
In 1967, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources planted Chinook and Coho salmon in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to control the alewife, an invasive species from the Atlantic Ocean. The salmon adapted rather well. They grew heavy on alewives and began to use the tributaries to these lakes for spawning. After this initial success, Chinook were planted in the other Great Lakes, where they are currently a prized sport fish, valued for their size and strength. Unlike the Coho and Atlantic salmon, the Chinook rarely leaps when hooked. Instead, it is extremely strong and has great tenacity, preferring to pull and hold like a mule. Traditionally, fly fishing for Chinook salmon is pursued in Alaska and British Columbia but the planting of these fish into the Great Lakes over forty years ago has developed the region into a world-class sport fishery. The “Top Gun” among salmon, the Chinook is a heavyweight torpedo with scales.
In fresh water, Chinook prefer a cool, oxygenated environment free of sediment, which is essential for egg development. Riparian vegetation and woody debris help juvenile salmon by providing cover and maintaining low water temperatures.
In terms of “natural” dispersion, Chinook salmon range from San Francisco Bay, California to north of the Bering Strait in Alaska and into the Arctic waters of Canada and Russia, including the entire Pacific coast in between. Populations of Chinook occur in Asia as far south as Japan. In Russia, they are found in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands.