Will 100-pound salmon return to Elwha?

The famed runs of salmon are expected to return after two dams are removed but will they be as big?

The Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River of the Olympic Peninsula were built in violation of an 1890 law which required fish passage facilities on dams “wherever food fish are wont to ascend”.   The logging companies were so powerful that the fisheries commissioner allowed them to get by with a hatchery, that never worked, instead of the required passage facilities. The dams blocked miles and miles of premium salmon and steelhead spawning grounds in Olympic National Park which produced enormous Chinook salmon that were reported to have reached 100 pounds and are thought to have been up to 12 years old!

Now the dams are going to be removed nearly 100 years after their construction. Will the 100 lb Chinook return?

Will 100-pound salmon return to Elwha?.





  1. jdubya Avatar

    That is a lot of what ifs…What if the genetics was “better”..what if the cold water made stronger fish…what if the ability to stay at sea for 12 years allowed for a larger animal….what if the sharp incline to spawn selected for larger, stronger fish (stronger yes, but larger?)…..i would buy the 12 year idea the most in that salmonid growth is usually defined by food intake and age…

  2. Angela Avatar

    I think there will be strong selection against larger, older adults depending on how much spawning habitat there is and how quickly fish populations recover. The longer an adult remains in the ocean to feed and grow, the more they are vulnerable to being caught in the fisheries or eaten by predators. Heavy ocean fishing pressure has resulted in Chinook salmon that return younger and at smaller sizes in many areas, such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin system. In most streams, a (mostly male) segment of the population also returns earlier than the average age-of-return (“jacks” and “jills”). Instead of using size and strength to commandeer a female and defend her, these sneaker males dart in when the pair is spawning and fertilize some eggs, ensuring the genetic legacy of this life history strategy (size and age of return are heritable characteristics in salmon).

    I imagine those large individuals originated from a time when there were enough fish that intraspecific competition for spawning space made it desirable to be able to access areas upstream of the obstacles. The competition could also have favored salmon that dig deeper egg pockets if there are enough adults that they are superimposing their redds on top of earlier redds, or if subsequent runs of salmon use the same spawning areas. So maybe it requires a population of a certain size for these density-independent factors to kick in. But it would be offset by the risk of spending additional years in the ocean.

    Another hypothesis would be that the spawning substrate is coarser and bigger fish are better able to construct redds in it. Or, if there tend to be high flows after the spawning season, larger fish were able to dig deeper egg pockets that protect their eggs and alevins from being displaced.

    I don’t think the ability to lay many more thousands of eggs would make a difference, since the number of eggs laid is not usually limiting.

    Having seen photos of Chinook around 65 lbs, I can’t imagine what a 100-pounder would look like! Not sure I’d want to be snorkeling in the spawning reaches with them.

    1. jdubya Avatar

      That is even more if’s! But you are probably spot on about the fishing pressure taking the larger adults out before they could spawn. What is the chance those fish can survive for 12 years in the seas these days without ending up on my platter as sushi?

  3. Angela Avatar

    Sorry, it was actually around 85 lbs!! A carcass found in 2008. That’s getting pretty close to 100 lbs.
    Beautiful, beautiful fish.

  4. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    They certainly did not have to devote much of their energy in freshwater migrations as spawning adults or smolts running to the sea – particularly in contrast to the Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and Snake River Basin steelhead with the remnants of the Snake River sockeye salmon that have to make ~1,000 mile trip each way into Idaho.

    In fact, the steelhead here (actually ocean-running redband trout) are much more oiler (more fuel) than coastal steelhead and introduced Pacific salmonids in the Great Lakes, which are composed more of muscle.

    My experiences on the Salmon River of NY on the leeside of Lake Ontario and its tributaries like Orwell Brook, is 65+ Chinook salmon can easily knock you over while wading, especially since they are in great shape physically after their relatively easy spawning run.

    100 lb fish sound like a combination of lots of great food and growing conditions in the Pacific Ocean and predictably favorable freshwater stream conditions plus mighty fine genetics. Our experiences here with runs of five-ocean Snake River spring/summer Chinook that I observed in 2003 and 2004 was that they were significantly larger than other cohorts, selected larger spawning “gravels” (more like cobble) and constructed much larger redds.

    Larger females as a rule in salmonids not only have larger eggs with more nutrition for the developing embryo and therefore larger alevins and fry with higher survival rates, but also more eggs. So… the evolutionary strategy for staying at sea longer is higher survival to reproduction for your offspring and more offspring in contrast to longer time to reproduction and increased probability of not surviving to reproduce.

    The trade-off makes sense for females on the Olympic Peninsula where stream conditions might be more predictably conducive to spawning success than some of the High Desert streams in Idaho, where wildfire, drought, landslides, floods, earthquakes, logjams, etc. were natural impediments with lots of stochasticism. In that case, you want to spawn as soon as possible but spend enough time in the ocean to get large enough to have successful, numerous eggs… and bring some Pacific Ocean nutrients to your future offspring (decaying carcasses plus inverts that feed on them naturally supported juvenile salmonids). Part of the life strategy observed here is to have some fish in a cohort return after one year in the ocean (Jack males), while some females return after 2, 3, 4, or 5 years in the ocean. That way, you or some of your relatives genes might make it assuming one of those years will be conducive to successful spawning and recruitment.

    I bet the 100 lb historic fish from the Elwha were largely females. If they did spend 12 years in bays and ocean (hard to imagine that long), I bet the males were much smaller and spent much less time at sea (lots less energy to create lots of sperm to fertilize the large, nutrient-rich salmon eggs).

    Larry Z, Salmon, Idaho

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      Larry, I agree it is interesting the different selective pressures on male and female chinooks. At a carcass weir on the Nakina River (headwaters trib of the Taku) 1 and 2 ocean jacks (all males) account for about half the carcasses but the 3 and 4 ocean adults still average about 49% males. It just seems like you’ve got better odds passing on some of your genes being a male and minimizing the hazards of the ocean. On the upper Nahlin River (also interior Taku) I was shocked to find rearing chinook juveniles in late August about 75-80 mm and exuding milt, having skipped the whole ocean thing. This was well after the big fish were dead, and they went into minnow traps and had all appearances that they were going to survive. The smallest females they could have spawned with were 3 ocean and probably at least 18 lbs! The question is, what did they do next – go to sea the next spring?

      As far as long migrations, I don’t think Yukon kings are particularly large but are extremely fat entering the river at Emonak – actually have a premium niche market. Some go up to 2,300 miles and spawn just over the hill from the Taku drainage behind Juneau.

    2. WM Avatar

      Larry or SEAK,

      Are you saying that Jacks (young males returning early) are pre-programmed to do so? If so, do you have any idea why is it that inordinate numbers of jacks are returning for a couple of Chinook runs on the Columbia this year.

      By the way, I have fished at the mouth of the Kasilof River in AK (a tributary of the Kenai River on the Peninsula) on a sand bar which runs across the entire mouth of the river. It is about the height of a pair of hip boots with about two inches of freeboard to the top of your boot. Fishermen basically stretch across the mouth of the river when the fish are in, or when the big kings make a right turn to come up the Kasilof they basically encounter a wall of fishermen. Some of these are in the fifty pound plus catagory. The water is murky, with less than a foot visibility at times. Every once in awhile a fisherman will go down, after having a leg slapped by a hog king and losing their balance. I have had them go between my legs, and on one occasion when my legs were close together the fish hit me once, then not making it through, hit me again, almost causing me to go down as I have seen others do. It is a strange feeling, because you can’t see them and do not know when they will try to break through. Very exciting, actually. I saw a very diminuitive Japanese man get slapped down, and didn’t recover from fall until he almost entered the main channel of the Kenai, another two or three seconds and he would have drowned.

  5. Paul White Avatar
    Paul White

    You’d think sports anglers would be all over damn removal…I’m not even much of a fisherman but the though of landing a 100lb salmon…man. that’d be a hell of a sight to see.

    Or are they like game animals, and the bigger/older ones don’t taste good?

    1. Elk275 Avatar

      I have landed a 45 to 50 pound King Salmon on the Mulchana River with a 8 weight rod and it took over 2 hours of very hard work. I do not think that I could or would want to land a 100 pound King Salmon on a fly rod — maybe a 12 weight, but that is no fun.

  6. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    Sounds like quite a battle – I’ve never hooked one on a fly rod.
    I hope this dam removal works out as planned – think it’s been talked about for around 20 years. However, I’m very skeptical that these fish actually spent up to 12 years in the ocean – unless there are some scales from them archived somewhere. Most Chinooks are 3 and 4 ocean (except for 1 and 2 ocean jacks) with 5 ocean (total age 7, if stream type) being uncommon in many systems, although 5 ocean fish are a substantial component in the Kenai River where kings get up to 100 lbs. and commonly over 80 lbs. A fish wouldn’t need to stay out particularly long to reach that size – just have a slightly faster growth rate. The normal growth rate for Chinooks is less than half of that of coho salmon, which eat a somewhat similar mostly-fish diet and average around 10 lbs. after only 16 months at sea, with 20 lbs. fairly common and a few on record over 30 lbs. (cohos at sea longer than 1 ½ years are exceedingly rare and typically sterile). Two ocean Chinook jacks are typically smaller than 1 ocean adult cohos – the true gluttons of the salmon family.
    The Chignik River has a far smaller king run than the Kenai but also gets some very large fish – no doubt including the occasional 100+ pounder. A 92 pounder was delivered to a tender by a purse seine boat when I was there as a teenager. One of the people who worked there caught one that weighing 85 lbs. I hooked one that had to be absolutely huge, trolling a diving plug over the spawning redds in the deep section of the river just below the lake. I was using a halibut pole with a cheap deep-sea reel and 80 lb. line. We would bring the boat over the fish and I would try to ease it up, but it would go smoking off while my faulty drag got progressively tighter. Finally on one run, it got so tight before I could adjust it that something had to give and the plug ripped in half and came up minus the hooks. I never even got a glimpse of that fish and, had we not been a couple miles from the ocean, would have concluded it was a big halibut.
    Speaking of king salmon – its sunny out so we’re going to skiff down and camp on a beach by the inlet and drag a herring around near the surface this evening and early a.m., and see if we can sample one of those spring kings.

  7. Si'vet Avatar

    Paul White, just reach down give that hook a little twist and a shove, catch a tail full of water in the face, it helps wipe off the grin. When you get home you can just hang up your gear, relax and have cold, no mess, no fuss.

    1. Paul White Avatar
      Paul White

      I dont’ do fish and release…if I catch something I’m eating it. Part of why I don’t fish very often.

  8. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    I often wonder what it would have been like to witness the salmon run at any time before the dams. to the tune of several million fish or more. just in the Pacific north west.(lets not even get into the atlantic states). the river systems are too numerous to list that supported salmon runs. and now the hoot -n-holler about a two hundred thousand run

  9. WM Avatar

    It will be interesting to see how far up the Elwha various salmon and even steelhead are able to go before spawning, as they reclaim the length of the river. Some of the best spawning gravel is upstream of what is called Goblin’s Gate a very narrow fast moving cliff lined channel above Lake Mills. There are also some pretty steep stretches just below the Lake Mills dam discharge. In either case, it will take very muscular and maybe even high jumping fish to make it up these challenging stretches of river. One has to wonder just how far upstream these 100 pound kings will go.

    I am also curious what the river channel is like beneath both Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell. My interest is exceptionally keen regarding the steelhead that will eventually inhabit the river. I would take a twenty pound native steelhead over a forty plus pound king nearly any day. At least you are more likely to see it, even if you don’t land it. It will also be interesting to see how the river channel clutters up with log jams as it returns to its natural state. That always makes for more interesting fishing.

  10. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    WM –
    I’m most familiar with coho, for which the jacks are only at sea about 4 months and the adults a year more than that. In coho, its been pretty well demonstrated that fish are not necessarily programmed to return as jacks but males have more of a tendency to do so if they have reached a certain size by late summer-fall. Larger smolts and earlier departing smolts tend to produce more jacks. In this area, lake systems tend to produce more coho jacks, probably because they tend to produce larger smolts – while the mainland rivers have relatively few. However, there could certainly be genetic influence on the percentage jacks in different populations as well. One thing that seems interesting is that in some cases it seems like a 50-50 sex ratio starting out is impossible even if there was a huge survival disparity between the sexes because returns of males in all the age classes combined is so much greater than females.

    Usually, lots of jacks like you are describing in the Columbia is a good sign for future adult returns – although salmon forecasting is still practically a fool’s errand. I was at a conference on salmon conditions in the ocean a year and a half ago and basically every presentation from the Pacific Northwest described near perfect ocean conditions for salmon smolts that left the Columbia and other systems in Spring 2008 – terrific growth, high lipid content, lots of food, predators almost nowhere to be found, etc. Conditions have apparently shifted back some to a more neutral situation in Spring 2009 and possibly unfavorable this spring, based on ocean current patterns – last I read 2 or 3 months ago. The superb Spring 2008 conditions were reflected in very strong coho returns in the lower Columbia in 2009 and presumably should be showing up in strong mini-jack (1 ocean) chinook returns in 2009 and 2 ocean chinook jack returns this year like you describe – and hopefully lots of 3 ocean and 4 ocean adults returning in 2011 and 2012.

    Regarding the Kenai, I seem to remember reading a few years ago that it is the 4th most heavily fished river in the nation – with true combat fishing in a number of areas as you describe. I haven’t fished there since the 70s and it was quite crowded then – also definitely not a river where you want to get swept in. It does sound exciting standing in murky water waiting to be hit by a 50 pound king!

    I had about as much excitement fishing for kings early this morning, trolling around, reading a good book. I didn’t get a bite or even see a salmon caught in 4 ½ hours, but at one point both my rods (2 are allowed now) twitched like a fish was playing with them – and 4 or 5 seconds later a humpback whale surfaced directly in front, almost touching my open 18 foot skiff with the tail still probably directly under the boat. I thought I might get picked up on the flukes and spilled (if by chance it was the third dive – deep) and was desperately groping for a reverse lever where there was none on an unfamiliar motor! Man they have bad breath!

  11. Jeremy Avatar

    Do these genetics still exist in the Elwha?? hatchery salmon become retarded after 1 or 2 generations. There can not possibly be any remaining wild fish of this caliber to reproduce and reach the precious super spawning territory. I would love to see it happen and hope even more dams are removed in the future, but i have a feeling there has been some un-repairable damage done here.

  12. K-Lynn Avatar

    I just stumbled onto this site for the first time. I hear lots of different ideas and was curious why you believe that salmon “become retarded” after 1-2 generations if the stock that is originally used is from wild stock and the salmon return to a hatchery? I know there are many different husbandry methods used. I work at a salmon hatchery in BC Canada.

  13. Chawkfreak Avatar

    They will never reach 100lbs when the indians start there netting of 50+% of the fish. Look at the puyallup small silvers and kings. Selective breading of small fish that get through the nets every year.

  14. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    Salmonids, including Chinook salmon, are extremely plastic in terms of life history strategies, growth, age, age of reproduction, and other phenotypic characteristics. An example would be the pure Lahontan cutthroat trout, which were rediscovered in a small Great Basin stream that was highly impacted by cattle grazing. Those same small desert fish had the genetic potential to reach the giant sizes found in Pyramid Lake.

    Same might be true for the Olympic Peninsula salmon – just waiting for the right conditions to show their 100-lb stuff. In many fish, delays in reproduction means larger sizes and certainly 12-year delay, means much larger fish for vertebrates with indeterminate growth (keep growing and growing).

    However, we are betting that the oceans will have the same food sources and temperatures for growing large Chinook salmon given climate changewith significant changes in the Pacific Ocean’s pH (more acidic, dissolving calcareous organisms that are the basis of the food chain) and besides evading sports anglers and tribal fishery nets, these behemoths have to avoid foreign fishing trawlers.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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