It’s September, and we are in full swing of the Great Lakes Salmon run. Consisting of primarily Chinook, then later Coho, the “run” brings tens of thousands of anglers and millions and millions of dollars of economic activity to the Great Lakes Region each year. Early runs begin primarily in the northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan in tributaries that support natural reproduction. These runs can start in July, but begin to ramp up in August and are in full swing by Labor Day weekend.
Following shortly are the runs on Lake Ontario...with north shore Canadian streams receiving strong returns, and finally the late Sept and October runs on the famed Salmon River in Eastern New York State.
Much is documented about salmon introduction into the Great Lakes, but little is discussed about the salmon itself, in particular the Chinook, from a biological and social impact perspective.
There are two primary strains of Chinook salmon, originating from the West Coast of the United States...the Tule (too-lee) and the URB (upper river bright). The Tule are the strain that populates the Great Lakes, and is known for its large size and fighting prowess as a game fish. The Tule strain is genetically pre-disposed to “run” in late summer/early fall, while the URB is a late fall run.
The Tule strain is a quick transformer when it comes to spawning. Close to its peak maturity it begins to quickly change color and jaw features, and after reaching its natal stream spawns quickly thereafter. The URB strain is designed to run a thousand miles up to rivers in Idaho, and retains its bright coloration until much later in its maturity cycle.
Tule, upon entering their natal streams, will begin to quickly kype (in the case of males), producing dog like teeth for spawning intimidation of other males. Both male and female become coated with a thick slime as a result of entering warmer fresh water, and thus become very pungent in smell. Both male and female Tule, as well as URB, will consume eggs of other salmon both as a need for protein intake to survive the rigors of spawning, and as natural instinct to destroy offspring of competing spawning pairs. Skein fishing under a float is a deadly method of enticing these spawning fish to bite during the spawn.
From a meat/table fare perspective, much is made about the quality between competing strains and their stages of life cycle. All chinook are chinook, there is little to no difference in nutritional quality between either strain throughout their lives and during spawn. Omega 3 levels remain the same, as do all other nutritional values. As a rule, earlier in their lifecyle, and earlier in the spring and summer, fat content is the greatest and will provide a slightly different flavor as compared to closer to and during spawning when fat reserves are used for egg and milt production.
Regarding meat coloration, there is no difference in nutritional value OR flavor depending on the color of the meat. Fat content as described above will slightly alter flavor, but meat coloration will not. All Chinook, regardless of strain, are either pre-disposed to efficiently or non efficiently process beta-carotene it consumes via its prey fish. Beta Carotene is the component responsible for the coloration of the meat...either orange, pink, red or in many cases white. Some kings have the genetics to process beta carotene into coloration, some do not. That’s it, nothing else to it.
There is a placebo effect on most sportsman regarding meat coloration and the nutritional/taste value of the flesh of chinook...with strong coloration seen as more desirable versus pale or white meat. In some areas, particularly in British Columbia and areas of Alaska “white chinook” are considered the premier and most desirable flesh color.....again, all nutrients and flavor are the same (assuming equal fat content).
As Chinook enter spawning phase, the density of their flesh will change...the nutritional and flavor values will not. Smoking is often used at this time as it preserves the meat in it‘s current state of firmness, and adds a smokey flavor to the flesh. This goes for any chinook regardless of flesh color.
So feel free to eat those chinook you catch during spawn periods, and if the meat is not as firm as you would like, smoking will preserve and actually firm up the flesh for eating!
When it comes to social judgement upon different strains of chinook, and their various states of table fare during spawning cycles....its really up to the person putting the fork in their mouth. While we are not to judge anyone for what they decide to eat, we do encourage everyone to use the resource responsibly and treat the fish with respect. If you choose not to consume, then share with neighbors. If you do choose to consume, tune out the the naysayers and enjoy.
We here in the Great Lakes do not have the luxury of catching different strains of chinook with different external and internal appearances...such as anglers on the West Coast do. The West Coast is where the term “boot” was originated in reference to Chinook salmon during their spawning cycle. Many West Coast anglers turn their noses up at spawning cycle Tule strain, in preference for perceived higher value URB or spring strain chinook. To each his own, but again there is no difference in nutritional value whatsoever, and mild difference due to fat content only as it relates to fat storage cycles during the lifespan of chinook.
So enjoy your fish, share the experience and fruits of your labor with friends and family if you so wish...and most of all, #respectthefish. Kings live a hard but short life, they are true monarchs of our sportfishery here in the Great Lakes.