Atlantic Salmon, Salmo salar

Atlantic salmon

Identifying characteristics: (Non-Native Fish) Two dorsal fins including one adipose fin, narrow pointed tongue with four to six small teeth, dark pectoral fins, forked tail, nine rays in anal fin.

Atlantic salmon are known throughout the world to be an exciting sport fish. This native of the North Atlantic Ocean was introduced to the Great Lakes in 1972 when Michigan planted some 20,000 young Atlantic salmon in the Boyne and AuSable Rivers. Two strains have been planted to date, including a strain from Sweden that has been landlocked for thousands of years.

Lake-run adults enter their parent streams to spawn, and each river or stream has a characteristic time when this happens. The female chooses a gravel-bottomed riffle above or below a pool, and there she digs a nest, or redd. As she lays her eggs in this depression the male simultaneously releases sperm. Then the female pushes gravel back over the eggs. When spawning is finished the adults may rest in the river for a time and then return to the lake, or the male may remain in the river all winter. Some Atlantic salmon live to spawn more than once.

Eggs hatch the following spring, usually in April, but the newly hatched young don't emerge from their gravel nest until May or June. At that stage of their development, they stay in the stream's fast water, eating and growing for two or three years until they are about six inches long. Then they move downriver to the lake, where they grow rapidly, often to a weight of three to six pounds in one year. Some return to their spawning grounds after this first year: others wait an extra year, growing to a weight of 6-15 pounds. The average adult lake-run Atlantic salmon weighs 8-10 pounds.

In the spring, Atlantics prefer the upper, warmer layers of the lake near shore, but in summer they retreat to deeper, cooler water. Then as fall approaches they again come shoreward as they head toward their spawning stream and the cycle repeats.

Salmon in the lake eat crustaceans, but especially seek out smelt, alewives, and any other available fish meal. While on their spawning run they do not feed, but will often strike aggressively at artificial flies. Young Atlantic salmon are prime food for eels, northern pike, other trout, and birds such as mergansers and kingfishers.

Atlantic salmon in the Great Lakes are caught using the trolling methods for chinook and coho fishing.

For more information on how and where to catch atlantic salmon see our Michigan Fish and How to Catch Them and Better Fishing Waters.

Atlantic salmon graphic courtesy of Joseph R. Tomelleri and copyrighted.