Witness the marvel of nature as salmon journey to their natal streams

Published on Thu, Sep 22, 2011 by Sue Madsen

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Sockeye salmon are but one of five species of Pacific salmon that can be found in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Photo courtesy of Dick Knight, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group

Salmon are an icon of the Pacific Northwest, emblematic of the cool, clear rivers that flow from the North Cascades.

There are five species of Pacific salmon: Chinook (King), coho (silver), chum (dog), pink (humpy) and sockeye (red). All are anadromous, meaning they begin and end life in fresh water, migrating to the sea after emerging from eggs, rearing there for two to six years, then returning to spawn in the fresh water and clean gravel of their natal stream. Female salmon build a “redd” (nest) in the streamed gravels by digging a shallow depression with their tail, then the male and female simultaneously deposit eggs and milt in the redd and cover them with gravel. Each species of salmon has developed a unique life history and occupies a specific ecological niche. And each species can be observed in the rivers and streams draining Mount Baker.

Chinook are the largest Pacific salmon. Historically the Columbia and Elwah rivers supported exceptionally large fish, with “June Hogs” frequently topping 100 pounds or more. Chinook prefer the fast, deep waters of large rivers. Chinook enter local rivers during the spring and summer, moving upstream to lay their eggs (spawn) in the late summer and fall. Juvenile chinook emerge from the redd in early spring, and most young fish move downstream to the ocean soon thereafter. Juvenile chinook spend approximately four years in the ocean. Good places to observe chinook include the Boyd Creek interpretive trail near Glacier, Donovan Park in northern Skagit County, or via boat in the mainstem Skagit and Nooksack rivers.

Chinook can occasionally be observed in the center of Bellingham in Whatcom Creek; look for them from the Racine Street footbridge in September.

Chum salmon are the second largest Pacific salmon. They are weaker swimmers than chinook and typically prefer channel edges or spring-fed side channels for spawning. Chum salmon enter the river to spawn in late fall, with the juveniles emerging and immediately moving downstream to the ocean in early spring. Chum are large, typically around 2 to 3 feet long, with blotchy purple stripes along their flanks. Whatcom Creek supports a large population of chum that originate from the hatchery in Maritime Heritage Park. Look for chum there in late October and early November. Wild chum salmon can be seen in the North Fork Nooksack River.

Coho are the most widespread species of salmon in our area. They are strong swimmers and jumpers, and prefer small streams for spawning, often traveling far upstream. Coho spawn in the late fall and winter, November through January. Juvenile coho rear in rivers for one to two years before moving downstream to the ocean as smolts, where they reside for about three years. Brick red and dark green coho are easy to see in many small local streams. In Bellingham, look for coho from the footbridges over Chuckanut Creek at Arroyo Park or Padden Creek in Fairhaven Park. Other areas to view coho include Boyd Creek and Thompson Creek near Glacier or in Skagit County.

Pink salmon are the smallest Pacific salmonid, averaging about 18 inches long. During their spawning, males develop a pronounced humped back, hence their nickname “humpies.” Juvenile pink salmon rapidly migrate downstream after emerging from redds in early spring and rear there for one year. Pink salmon have a strict two-year life cycle; in our area they return to spawn only in odd years. This year is forecasted to be one of the largest pink salmon returns in years. Pink salmon will be visible in most small local streams now.

Sockeye salmon are unique because the young fish require lakes for rearing. Historically Baker Lake near Concrete supported the only native sockeye population in our region. Construction of dams blocked upstream migration and drowned natural Baker Lake, and thus the sockeye population is currently maintained by hatchery production. During years of high adult returns, fish are released into Baker Lake and spawn along lake margins or at the upstream end of the lake. Look for these gorgeous scarlet and green fish in late September and early October from the Baker River trail footbridge, in spring-fed Channel Creek along the road to the trailhead or on lake margins near the Panorama Point or Shannon Creek campgrounds.

For viewing locations in Whatcom County, click here.

Salmon-watching etiquette*

• Avoid disturbing spawning salmon

• Stay on trails

• Stay out of the streams, and keep your pets out as well

• Don’t throw rocks or sticks at fish

• Stay off private property

• Don’t block roads

*Whatcom Salmon Recovery

Viewing location directions
Boyd Creek Interpretive Trail: Boyd Creek, three miles down Deadhorse Creek Road (Road 37) off Mt. Baker Highway, about a mile east of Glacier. Self-guided interpretive walk follows recently restored Boyd Creek, an important salmon spawning habitat. Signs along this forested mostly boardwalk trail detail the life cycles of species such as Chinook, pink and coho salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout.

Thompson Creek: Bridge located one mile up Glacier Creek Road.

North Fork Nooksack: Parking area on North Fork Road, about 1.5 miles from Mosquito Lake Road.

Baker Lake: Follow State Route 20 east for 16 miles to milepost 82. Turn left (north) on the Baker Lake Highway (Forest Service Road #11). Continue on the Baker Lake Highway for 25.5 miles to the road’s end at the trailhead and parking area. Channel Creek parallels the road for about one mile just before the road reaches the trailhead. The Baker River trail reaches the Baker River Bridge in .6 miles.