The King of Salmon

Fishing for Chinook in Alaska
A fisherman in Haines, Alaska

Someday, in your wildest fish dream come true, you may find yourself on the wind-whipped tundra of the Bering Sea coast, at one of a handful of small native villages that lie at the mouths of the great rivers there. A kindly old man with sparkling eyes and a face like shoe leather greets you warmly, then listens intently to your strange request. With a nod and a toothless grin, he motions to his youngest son to fetch the skiff and run you upriver. The boy quickly takes you around a few bends to a big fork in the river, where he deposits you and your gear on the gravel and is gone in a flash. For the next few days and sleepless nights (there are no nights dark enough for sleeping this far north in June), you are caught up in the magic of one of the greatest miracles to yearly befall these desolate coasts the stirring arrival of the first and most awesome of the Pacific's five salmon of summer. It's a fish prized through the ages for its size, gaminess, and good eating: the one they call chinook, the king of salmon.

Not given to recklessness like his cousin the coho, and certainly not the same class of fighter as the exalted steelhead, the chinook supremely outclasses all of his peers, in sheer size and strength alone. Husky from summers out in the rich North Pacific, he'll tip the scales at 40 or 50 pounds or more a formidable adversary, especially when fresh from the sea. When an ocean-bright 30-pounder slams your fly and rips into half your backing with lightning speed, you'll swear you've snagged a whale. The ensuing grudge match can last hours, during which the brawny lord of all salmon will test you and your gear to the limit. (A few years back, a Minnesota man made the news by fighting a monster Kenai River king for a day and a half!) But if you're tough and lucky enough to slug it out with him to the end, you'll stagger ashore with a prize definitely worth the trip to these waters. For the only thing more impressive than the fight of a big king salmon is the magnificent sight of one up close: immense, full-bodied, with sides of buffed platinum tinged with purple, and muscular, tapered flanks; his countenance suggests both power and grace the ultimate sea-roaming, river-running, fish-eating machine.

More than an angler's prize, the great chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) has been an integral part of Pacific Northwest culture for centuries. The fish was first encountered by white men over 250 years ago on the epic voyages of Vitus Bering. Explorers Lewis and Clark and Alexander Mackenzie wrote about the chinook and the elaborate rituals the native coastal tribes perform for its annual return. (In the mythology of these people, the great salmon embodies the spirits of supernatural beings from the sea, who ascend the rivers to sacrifice themselves for the survival of their captors.) The chinook has managed to survive the ravages of man, and today, in Alaska at least, he retains a measure of his former glory.

Here in the Last Frontier, the mighty king salmon has become almost a pop icon. We have made him our state fish and used his name and image shamelessly in countless business promotions, names of streets and subdivisions, and works of art. As the focal point of a multimillion dollar sportfishing industry (and prized commercial and subsistence species), the chinook's significance and stature is elevated beyond any measure. Hooking and landing a big king salmon has been and probably always will be the quintessential Alaska angling experience for the thousands of folks who travel from the four corners of the world to fish here.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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