Identification: Chinook can be differentiated from other salmon by their coloring and size. They can spend up to seven years in the ocean, generally weighing between 15 and 50 lbs when they return to spawn in the rivers. Elwha Chinook were known for their large body size, with some fish weighing as much as 100 lbs. This makes them the largest of the Pacific salmon, giving them the nickname of "king" salmon. While they are bright silver in the ocean, they take on a brown, black, or olive color upon returning to spawn in fresh water. Chinook are also set apart by a great deal of spotting on their backs and tails, and a distinctive black gum line.
The majority of Chinook spawn in the fall, and can be found in all of the park’s coastal rivers. There are also small spring runs in the Hoh, Queets, and Quinault Rivers, and summer runs in the Hoh, Queets, and Quillayute Rivers. The spring and summer Chinook runs tend to remain in the rivers throughout summer.
The leftover carcasses of these runs provide essential nutrients for other carnivorous members of the wildlife community. The redds, or nests, of Chinook salmon are huge and easy to spot from the banks of the spawning grounds. They can be up to 10 ft in diameter. If you see a redd, avoid stepping on it, as salmon eggs are easily and often damaged by trampling.
Though the runs in west coast valley rivers are stable, the Puget Sound Chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This covers the shortage of Chinook from the Elwha River to the Hood Canal and Puget Sound. Prior to dam construction in the Elwha River, the Chinook runs were legendary for their size and numbers. The presence of two dams on the river severely inhibited these runs. After dam removal, Elwha River Chinook salmon quickly recolonized areas above Elwha and Glines Canyon dam sites. Elwha Chinook salmon have now expanded to upper portions of the river in Olympic National Park including observations of their redds (nests) 58 km from the ocean, near Godkin Creek confluence. In September, visitors can observe Chinook salmon spawning in readily accessible portions of the river between Elwha and Glines Canyon dam sites. (Historical Range Map)
Although not listed, a number of spring Chinook runs on the west coast of the peninsula are also depressed. With careful tactics, both the spring-run and the summer/fall-run chinook stand a good chance of recovery. In January of 2007, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) adopted the final Endangered Species Act recovery plan for the Puget Sound Chinook.