The Yuba’s Most Famous Fish: Chinook Salmon

Chinook Salmon
Figure 1: Illustration of a Chinook salmon in its ocean phase

My name is Tyler Goodearly and I am SYRCL’s fish biologist. You can read more about me below. I am going to be sharing some fun fish facts about the native fish who inhabit the beautiful waters of the Yuba. I thought I’d start with the Yuba River’s most famous fish: The Chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon are resilient fish that have adapted quite intimately with California’s Mediterranean environment. Many of California’s rivers, like the Yuba River, have headwaters in the Western Sierras, which create a predictable flow pattern. There are periods of favorability, like December to May when there is high enough volume from rain and snow to inundate floodplains, and periods that are stressful, like July to September when snowpack has finished melting, so flows are low and temperatures are high. Salmon are anadromous fish, which means they have evolved to take advantage of the good times and take refuge in the ocean when times are tough.

Fall-run Chinook salmon, so called because they return to rivers to spawn in the fall, migrate up the Yuba River from September to December. The big males defend territories while females build nests called redds within them. However, young males, referred to as sneaker males or jacks, lack the typical secondary sexual characteristics associated with the big, red Chinook males, and trick males into letting them enter their territories. They then fertilize the female’s eggs right under the surveillance of the big males! After spawning, the adults perish; thus, fertilizing the river with their bodies and providing nutrients for the next generation.

Figure 2: Lower Yuba River flow data from 2019. The green box indicates spring pulse flows and the blue arrow points to the snowmelt recession.

Quick Facts

Name: Chinook Salmon

Scientific name: Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

Other names: King salmon, quinnat salmon, tyee

Diet: As juveniles, mostly invertebrates. As adults, mostly smaller fish.

Status: Fall-run Chinook salmon are state and federally listed as a species of special concern.

Spring-run Chinook salmon are state and federally listed as threatened.

Historic numbers: 100,000 or more adults of each run would return to the Yuba River annually.

Current numbers: While it varies year to year, there are 3-10,000 fall-run and 50-1,000 spring-run Chinook salmon returning to the Yuba River annually. Most of these are of hatchery origin.

Biggest threats: Dams, goldrush-era-related habitat destruction

Young fall-run Chinook salmon spend 1-7 months in the river depending on conditions (remember that relationship with flows mentioned earlier?). They are cued-in to the river’s environmental conditions because if they wait too long to move downstream, they could become stranded on floodplains or face lethal water temperatures. Juvenile salmon wait for spring snowmelt pulse flows to signal that it’s time to migrate to the ocean.

For more information on what SYRCL is doing to help Chinook salmon in the Yuba River, check out our restoration projects and the Yuba Salmon Now campaign.

About Tyler Goodearly, Fish Biologist

I was 21 years old the first time I held a Chinook salmon, which for a fish biologist, is kind of embarrassing. I, with the help of some classmates, pulled in a seine net (a long, rectangular net with two poles on either side) through the murky waters of Putah Creek. We had been practicing this sampling technique for months, but each time it was like Christmas—you never knew what you were going to get! This time was different and exhilarating for we caught a juvenile Chinook salmon! I was instantly captivated by its sparkling scales, vivid parr marks, big tail, and distinct adipose fin.

Since then, I have been immersed in the aquatic world. I’ve backpacked across California electrofishing small streams to assess fish communities, counted Chinook salmon carcasses (salmon naturally perish after coming up river to spawn) on the lower American River, assisted on several restoration and research projects in the Central Valley, observed mouth-brooding behaviors of cichlids in Lake Malawi, and removed invasive species from a Southern California desert oasis before coming to SYRCL.

Like a Chinook salmon, I have returned home. I’m eager to put my skills and experiences to good use here at SYRCL by restoring the lower Yuba River!

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