Of the five Pacific salmon, the chinook or king salmon is perhaps most prized by anglers. These fish get huge with the largest caught being a 126-pound giant captured in a fish trap near Petersburg in 1949. On sport gear, the record still stands at 97 pounds for a Kenai River hog landed in 1986.
Chinook salmon spawn from California to Japan. The upper Yukon River stocks travel over 2,000 miles to reach their spawning grounds, the longest freshwater salmon migration in the world. When salmon return to the freshwater to spawn they stop feeding and rely on fatty reserves to give them the energy necessary to complete the spawning cycle.
Thus, fish from longer river systems are usually very oily, which normally equates to better taste. Anyone who has seen the salmon drying racks of the lower Yukon chinook can attest to this fact. This is one reason why certain stocks of salmon have greater commercial value when all other factors are equal.
In Southeast Alaska, several systems produce king salmon with the most abundant runs occurring in the larger transboundary Taku, Stikine and Alsek rivers. Like other salmon, chinook rear offshore in the open ocean and spend anywhere from two to four years at sea before maturing and returning to their rivers of origin.
These fish are normally referred to as "outside" rearing and in Southeast anglers get the opportunity to target these fish only after they mature and begin their annual spawning runs each spring and early summer.
However, unlike other salmon, some chinook stocks are "inside" rearing and are available for harvest all year long. In Southeast Alaska, chinook salmon encountered in the late summer through winter months are from these "inside" rearing stocks and are commonly referred to as feeder kings.
These fish grow naturally in the King Salmon River on Admiralty Island, Andrew Creek in the lower Stikine River, and in all of the Behm Canal systems near Ketchikan. In addition, all of the hatchery stocks of Southeast utilize brood stock that is "inside" rearing in nature.
It is not impossible to catch a mature fish at this time of the year; however, it is a good bet that any king caught in the Golden North Salmon Derby will be a feeder king. Feeder kings swim at depth and normally will not shallow up until primal urges draw them closer to their natal streams or hatcheries of origin.
Anglers targeting these kings fish deep, sometimes at depths in excess of 100 feet. The use of downriggers facilitates this method of fishing but for those without these aids the 16-ounce weight becomes the tool of choice.
Chinook at this time of the year also have a good chance of possessing white flesh and are referred to as white kings. One study showed that the highest proportions of white kings occurred in stocks from central British Columbia and the proportions decreased as you moved north or south. In fact, one Canadian stock is comprised of nearly 100 percent white kings annually.
This study also showed that the "inside" rearing stocks of Southeast have a higher proportion of white kings on average when compared to the "outside" rearing stocks. This is one reason why white kings are more common at this time of the year.
Another is that all chinook salmon have white flesh to begin with. It is not until later in life after development of an enzyme necessary to lay down keratin in the meat that fish get meat with a bright red appearance.
In general, white kings have not or never will develop this enzyme and the reasons behind this phenomenon are unclear. One thing is clear - regardless of meat coloration, these fish taste fantastic and one would be hard pressed to find a better meal!
These days stocks of chinook salmon are healthy in Southeast Alaska and we are fortunate to be able to pursue Alaska's state fish and compete with others to see who can land the big one!
Ed Jones is a fisheries biologist who loves to fish. For further information concerning sport fishing opportunities or regulations , call the Division of Sport Fish at 465-4270.