Skip to main content

Chinook salmon

Chinook Salmon Illustration

Illustration by Joseph R. Tomelleri ©

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha - scientific name


Chinook salmon can be hard to identify. Learn more about identifying Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, rainbow (steelhead) trout and brown trout.

Two dorsal fins including one adipose fin, inside the mouth and gums, black, small spots on upper back and full tail, 15 to 17 rays in anal fin.


Present in all the Great Lakes, the best fishing is in Lake Michigan and significant stream fishing occurs all along the Lake Michigan coast with some of the better inland stream fishing in the Manistee, Pere Marquette and St. Joseph Rivers.

Preferring somewhat cooler water temperatures than coho, they are usually caught in deeper water in the Great Lakes. Somewhat photo-sensitive, Chinooks can be caught near the surface in low-light conditions, but are often targeted in deeper water once the sun has climbed into the sky, by anglers using downriggers and lead-core or copper line to get spoons, dodgers and flies or cut bait rigs down to the strike zone. It isn't unusual to catch Chinooks 100 or more feet down.

Chinooks begin their upstream migration in late summer and are usually present in catchable numbers by mid August. They are pursued by river anglers with all manner of artificial baits -- spoons, spinners and plugs – as well as with spawn, fished on the bottom in bags or in chunks of cut skein under a bobber.

Review Fishing Guide for current rules and regulations »


Primary food source is alewives, but other prey species such as rainbow smelt and bloaters are also common.

Background information:

Chinook salmon are often called "kings," and not without reason. Strong, hard-running fish that will spool a reel without adequate line. Chinooks, the largest of the Pacific salmon, have been stocked in the Great Lakes since the 1870s, but it wasn't until Michigan planted them in 1967 that they became established. With a large alewife population in the Great Lakes, conditions were right for Chinooks to prosper. They have become the dominant species in the Great Lakes salmon fishery. Since then, a multi-billion dollar sport fishery developed, particularly on lakes Michigan and Huron.

Although significant reproduction has been documented -- and in some places produces the bulk of the fishery -- the DNR maintains a large Chinook stocking program, though numbers have been cut in recent years because of concerns about alewife populations. The state record Chinook salmon weighed more than 46 pounds, but in excess of 20 pounds are considered to be fairly large specimens these days.

The Chinook salmon is also the focus of the popular Salmon in the Classroom program. Hundreds of classrooms around the state raise chinook from egg to smolt and then students release them in local streams.

Did you know the DNR rears Chinook salmon at Platte River State Fish Hatchery, Thompson State Fish Hatchery and Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery?