Deschutes River Chinook

Local Streams

Chinook salmon are associated with big rivers with large gravel. The largest salmon caught on record weighed 126 pounds (caught in 1949 in Alaska), so it's easy to imagine these fish need a large river with lots of water and large gravel. The Deschutes River did not have a historical salmon run, due to the lower falls creating an impassible barrier, when the Green River salmon were planted in Capitol Lake in the 1950’s. When the adult salmon returned to Percival Creek, some were moved by truck to the upper Deschutes to start a natural run. Shortly after, the fish ladders were built around the falls and the small dam above the falls. In the early 1960’s, the holding ponds were built in Tumwater Falls Park, creating an adult trapping facility managed by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Over the past 50 years of managing this hatchery run, different strategies have been used. The best science and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are the current drivers for the fish management at the facility. As a hatchery run, these Chinook salmon do not fall under the ESA. This salmon run is managed specifcally for commercial, tribal and sport fsheries. The returning adults are the “escapement” salmon – the ones that escaped harvest. When they arrive at the 5th Avenue Dam in August, these salmon have been thousands of miles from Olympia feeding in the Gulf of Alaska. Their bodies no longer have the silver marine coloration, but now are shades of brown and green with black. The males have the hooked snout and teeth. As the females have begun to develop the eggs, the lower body cavity begins to swell. Both males and females have stopped eating. The fsh weigh about 15 to 20 pounds; although, a much smaller fish is often spotted. This salmon, called a jack, is a mature male that only spent one year feeding in the ocean before beginning the return migration back to freshwater.

The salmon congregate and swim around below the 5th Avenue dam, often in pursuit by hungry seals. The fish ladder is always open so the fsh can swim into Capitol Lake whenever they are ready. They may hold longer in Budd Inlet because Capitol Lake water is too warm or they are not ready to spawn, or their bodies are adapting from salt to freshwater. After they pass the dam and swim through the lake, they are met with the challenge of swimming up three fish ladders for a total of 82 feet elevation. The last fish ladder ends in the holding ponds. The journey stops here for the salmon. Beginning in the third week in September, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, the salmon are processed. The processing goes on for 4 to 6 weeks. Over 1,000 males and 1,000 females will be artifcially spawned. The egg take goal is 4.8 million eggs. The eggs and milt are kept separate and transported to Minter Creek hatchery near Gig Harbor for the fertilization and incubation. Some of the hatchery-origin Chinook (without an adipose fin), will be sent upriver for nutrient enhancement of the Deschutes River. The remaining salmon are sent to a fsh processor: much of the salmon will be filleted and frozen and given to food banks, the lower quality salmon will be used for animal food or fertilizer, and the eggs (in the unspawned females) will be sold for bait or food.

In the spring, the hatchery-raised baby salmon are now 2 to 3 inches big. They are brought back to the holding ponds and held for two weeks to imprint the scent of the Deschutes River. In total, 4 million fry will be released in batches of about 500,000 every two weeks from April to June. The cycle continues, as these fry migrate out of Capitol Lake and into Budd Inlet, then out to the wider Puget Sound and eventually to the Pacifc Ocean. Within a few years, some of them will return to complete the life cycle again.