Chinook Salmon

Chinook, also called king, or tyee salmon

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

chinook, male

Courtesy American Fisheries Society & Phillips Petroleum Foundation

Kshawytscha is the Russian name for this species around Kamchatka, USSR. The word chinook, probably from the Indians of the same name who lived at the mouth of the Columbia River, entered the English language around the middle of the 19th century.

The largest of the family Salmonidae, chinook can grow to nearly five feet in length, and more than 100 pounds in weight, though most mature specimens are under 50 pounds. Chinook can therefore cope with faster currents, and will spawn during spring runoff, as well as in the summer and fall. It was the mainstay of Indian economy throughout the coastal river systems, and is still the most important salmon in the sport and commercial arena.

"common salmon"

On August 13, 1805, at the Shoshone camp on the Lemhi River in Idaho, an Indian—himself extremely short on rations—hospitably gave Lewis "a small morsel of the flesh of an antelope boiled, and a piece of a fresh salmon roasted, both which I eat with a very good relish. This was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean."

After their tortuous, hungry crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains they arrived at the forks of the Clearwater River in late September, evidently at the end of the fall salmon run. "one of the young men took his gig and killed 6 fine Salmon. Two of them were roasted and we eate." By the first day of October they, as well as their Nez Perce Indian hosts, were reduced to eating dried salmon, "which the men [of the Corps] complain of as working on them as much as a dose of Salts." Tainted with bacteria to which the men's stomachs were unaccustomed, it produced the same effect as glauber salts, a common emetic.1

April 17, 1806, passing through the vicinity of The Dalles, Oregon, and Celilo Falls, "the salmon not having made their appearance proves a serious inconvenience to us." Again they're nibbling at dried salmon, and though they're

The following spring, again camped near the Nez Perce village while waiting for the snow-choked Bitterroot mountains to thaw a little, both the Corps and the Indians eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the spring salmon run. On May 18, 1806, Lewis wrote:

Early this morning the natives erected a lodge on the opposite side of the river near a fishing stand a little above us, no doubt to be in readiness for the salmon, the arrival of which they are so ardently wishing as well as ourselves.

In desperation, following the advice of the Indians, he sent Sergeant Ordway and Privates Frazer and Weiser on a long trek over to "Lewis's River" (today's Snake River) to get salmon. Setting out on May 27, they understood from their Indian informants that the Snake was only a half day's ride to the south, but it proved to take three days, and they didn't get back to "Camp Chopunnish" until noon on June 2. Most of the 17 salmon they brought were nearly spoiled, but the rest were edible. "Those which were sound," wrote Lewis, "were extreemly delicious. Their flesh is of a fine rose color with a small admixture of yellow."

Female Chinook

chinook, female

Courtesy American Fisheries Society & Phillips Petroleum Foundation

Lewis's Description

Meriwether Lewis described the chinook, or king, salmon on March 13, 1806, while at Fort Clatsop:

The common Salmon and red Charr [sockeye salmon] are the inhabitants of both the sea and rivers. The former is usually largest and weighs from 5 to 15 lbs. It is this species that extends itself into all the rivers and little creeks on this side of the Continent, and to which the natives are so much indebted for their subsistence.

The body of this fish is from 2-1/2 to 3 feet long and proportionably broad. It is covered with imbricated [overlapping] scales of a moderate size and is variegated with irregular black spots on its sides and gills. The eye is large, and the iris of a silvery colour, the pupil black.

The rostrum or nose extends beyond the under jaw, and both the upper and lower jaws are armed with a single series of long teeth which are subulate [tapering to a point] and inflected [bent inwards] near the extremities of the jaws where they are also more closely arranged. They have some sharp teeth of smaller size and same shape placed on the tongue, which is thick and fleshy.

The fins of the back are two. The first is placed nearer the head than the ventral fins, and has [blank] rays; the second is placed far back near the tail, is small, and has no rays.

The flesh of this fish is, when in order [mature and healthy, before the end of the spawning run], of a deep flesh coloured red and every shade from that to an orange yellow, and when very meager [old and thin] almost white.

The roes [eggs] of this fish are much esteemed by the natives, who dry them in the sun and preserve them for a great length of time. They are about the size of a small pea, nearly transparent, and of a reddish yellow colour. They resemble very much at a little distance the common currants of our gardens but are more yellow.

This fish is sometimes red along the sides and belly near the gills, particularly the male.

1. Patrick Gass, on the other hand, offered a different explanation for their gastrointestinal distress: "The water also is soft and warm, and perhaps causes our indisposition more than any thing else." September 25, 1805.