King Salmon

Order Salmoniformes

 Trouts and Salmon—Family Salmonidae

Adult male — Picture courtesy of NOAA

Species: Oncorhynchus tshawytscha (Walbaum, 1792); from the Greek roots onkos  (hook), rynchos (nose), and tshawytscha (the vernacular name for the species in Alaska and Kamchatka, USSR).

Alternate Names: Chinook salmon, black mouth, spring salmon, tyee (large specimens over 30 pounds), quinnat, hookbill, tchaviche, and tshawytscha. In the 19th century these were called quinnat, California salmon, king salmon, choweecha, Sacramento River salmon (by anglers in California) and Columbia River salmon (by anglers in Oregon and Washington). Called salmón boquinegra in Mexico.

Identification: Body elongate, mouth terminal, large, and teeth moderately sharp. Upper back and all of caudal fin, dorsal fin, and adipose fin have irregular black spots; gums are black at base of teeth.  In saltwater their coloring is blue or greenish-blue to gray or black above, silver below. However, when spawning in freshwater their colors change. Males become very dark with smaller fish often a dull yellow. Larger males are often blotchy, dull red on sides.  Females become blackish in color.

Adult female — Picture courtesy of NOAA

Size: Up to 58 inches and 135 pounds; those caught off piers rarely exceed 20 pounds and most are under 10 pounds. The California record for an ocean caught king salmon is 65 lb 4 oz caught near Crescent City in 2002.

Range: Bahia de Sebastian Vizcaino, central Baja California, to Point Hope, Chukchi Sea, Alaska, with strays across northern Alaska to Coppermine River in the Canadian Arctic; along the Asian Pacific coast from the Anadyr River, Russia to Hokkaido, northern Japan.

Habitat: King salmon are anadromous, spending part of their life in fresh water and part in salt water. Most of their adult life is spent in salt water before returning to their home stream, spawning, and dying.

King Salmon caught by “Sitting BIll” at the Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara in 1997

Piers: As a general rule, few salmon are taken from southern California piers. While I have witnessed a salmon taken at the Balboa Pier, and one at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, I have not seen them from other SoCal piers. However, Snookie, the expert on the Newport and Balboa piers once caught a ten-pound king salmon at Balboa and reports she has seen several king and silver salmon taken at both piers. Perhaps their proximity to the deep water Newport Canyon and its cold waters helps explain the salmon. Most of the king salmon caught from California piers are taken in central and northern California. In central California they primarily are seen between Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay. Best bets: Monterey Wharf #2, Seacliff State Beach Pier, Santa Cruz Wharf, Pacifica Pier and Fort Baker Pier. Top piers in northern California would be the Point Arena Pier, Trinidad Pier, and the B Street Pier in Crescent City. During some years large runs of salmon take place at Pacifica where as many as a thousand salmon have been landed in a single day. Runs generally start in late June or July and can run for a month or more. In the fall, when the salmon move into the Carquinez Strait on their way upstream (to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers),  they are frequently caught at both the Benicia 1st Street and 9th Street piers. However, far more salmon are landed by anglers casting from the nearby shoreline areas.

Rose Costa and a king salmon from the Seacliff State Beach pier in 1997

Shoreline: Genereally not taken by shore anglers in ocean areas but caught by anglers in Carquinez Strait and in streams and rivers.

Boats: A major goal of boaters from Avila north to the Oregon Border.

King Salmon at Pacifica Pier, 1998

Bait and Tackle: Live bait is generally the best bait for piers. Usually this means using whatever you can catch via a throw net or a Sabiki (which can injure the fish). Most commonly a small smelt or shinerperch is used although small herring, sardine or anchovy are even better. A second approach is to use a whole dead anchovy on a live bait leader; a float is used in conjunction with a short leader to keep the bait floating just below the surface. It’s a different story when the salmon have moved upriver. By the time they reach the waters at Benicia they have quit eating and are primarily caught on lures. A panoply of lures are used but the favorites at Benicia seem to be spinners — Mepps #5 Aglia or Aglia-e, Mepps Flying C’s (various colors but especially green/yellow), and Vee Zee spinners (made and sold at Benicia Bait & Tackle). Spoons such as Kastmasters Krocodiles also are favored by many.

Snookie and a 10-pound king salmon taken from the Balboa Pier

Food Value: Excellent! One of the best tasting fish in our waters. Rich, dark orange meat with a high fat content. One of the best fish for baking, broiling and smoking.

Comments: Salmon are the most prized of the Pacific northwest fish and Chinook or Kings are the most prized of the prized. Although typically uncommon on piers, they one of the favorite fish for pier anglers. Salmon are one of the favorite fish for pier and boat anglers. Beginning in the mid-’80s, and  occurring several times since, the Pacifca Pier has seen tremendous runs of salmon, primarily king salmon. Some weekends have seen over a thousand fish landed and naturally when that happens  the rails will be lined with anglers. Nevertheless, the results can be worth the hassle.

An excerpt from an article by Tom Stinstra, the preeminent outdoor writer from the San Francisco Examiner, gives a feel of what it can be like during a run of salmon at Pacifica.

“Fine Fishing Off Pacifica”

WHEN IT COMES to fishing, some days you’re the windshield, and some days you’re the bug. At Pacifica Municipal Pier this week, fishermen have felt more like prisoners of hope than anything else, waiting for the annual arrival of salmon, and with it, the best fishing of the year from any public pier in America.

A high fog arrived Tuesday, and with calm seas beneath, schools of anchovies started migrating inshore, marked by gulls and pelicans, circling, diving and feeding. Birds never lie, you know, and most here figure the salmon can’t be far behind, chasing and corralling the anchovies.

“Fishing at the pier is like playing the stock market,” said Jim Klinger, a field scout and Pacifica resident. “One day it’s all limos and Lear jets, the next day you want to be perched on a window ledge on the 30th floor.”

Last year, the salmon arrived on July 8, when 300 salmon were caught at the pier in a few hours, a maniacal but happy scene, and as word circulated overnight around the Bay Area, the 1,000-foot pier became jammed with 800 fishermen the following day. At daybreak, the salmon charged inshore again, and more than 600 were landed by afternoon, then the next day, more than 1,000 were caught, with hundreds of others hooked and lost. It lasted for five days, then after settling down to 50 to 100 salmon per day, another siege ensued for a week, with 300 to 400 fish caught per day. Peaks and valleys, it went up and down like this through August.

To some level, this happens every year, just after the Fourth of July, but nobody knows exactly when the salmon will arrive, and nobody knows exactly how many fish will show, or when they will bite. And that’s when fishermen start thinking about prayer.

“From day to day, even hour to hour, it can be so unpredictable that you never know what’s going to happen next,” Klinger said. “‘Everything seems so temperamental and finicky. It can be the greatest day of your life or the biggest disappointment.”

Over the years, the scene at Pacifica Pier has become a microcosm of urban life in America. Cost is a factor in recreation these days, and not only is fishing at the pier free, but a fishing license is not required either. People can stand shoulder to shoulder here, and despite huge differences in backgrounds, with language and cultural differences the most prominent, they learn to work together anyway. Whether it be loaning a crab net to land and hoist up a big fish, or dipping under and over lines while playing a salmon to avoid tangles, people discover here that you get results by cooperating, just as in urban life.

And just like life elsewhere, everybody can be happy, excited and tense over what is possible on some days, yet surly, closed and grumpy over what seems impossible on others.

—Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Examiner, May 6, 2004

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