steelhead, species of anadromous fish, once were prolific in the
Columbia River. Based on late 19th-century cannery records and
Indian accounts, it is believed that some 10 million to 16 million adult salmon
and steelhead returned to the river each year to spawn prior to about 1850,
when European emigration into the basin began to accelerate, and with it the
exploitation of salmon. In modern times, by comparison, the returns rarely top
2 million per year.
species of Pacific salmon are known to have inhabited the Columbia River Basin
historically. These are Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink salmon, and
steelhead. Steelhead were grouped with trouts in the Salmo genus until
the 1990s, when they were reclassified in the Oncorhynchus genus with
means “hooked snout,” a physical characteristic of adult salmon when they
are ready to spawn. Five of the six species still are found in the Columbia
River. Columbia River pink salmon are extinct, but pinks are prolific in rivers
farther north, in British Columbia and Alaska.
ancestors of modern Columbia River salmon probably evolved around 25-35 million
years ago during the late Oligocene period. However, the fossil record of
anadromous fish in the Columbia and Snake rivers dates to 7-10 million years
ago, a period when both rivers ran to the sea (the Snake entered the ocean in
present-day northern California). Scientists disagree whether salmon — in the
Columbia River and elsewhere — evolved in freshwater or saltwater. The
archaeological evidence leans toward freshwater because the fossil record
suggests the freshwater residence of salmon predates their saltwater residence.
some time in the distant past, most likely during the late Oligocene Epoch
about 30 million years ago, the oceans began to cool. Cooler water is more
productive of food organisms for fish than warmer water, and it is believed
that salmon adapted anadromy to take advantage of this increased marine food
productivity. By 8 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean achieved its current
temperature regime; by then, salmon similar to those we know today had been
living in coastal rivers for about 2 million years.
Saber-toothed salmon skull. Illustration: University of Oregon.
some ancient salmon looked nothing like the fish we know today. One ancient
species in the Oncorhynchus genus was six feet long and had a pair of enormous
curved teeth like a saber-toothed tiger. This fish, smilodonichthys
rastrosus, the six-foot-long saber-toothed salmon, fed primarily
on plankton and appears to have used streams for spawning. Fossil remains of
the fish have been found in central Oregon and in coastal rivers in California.
time the various species of Pacific salmon adopted unique life histories and
run timing, adapting to localized conditions of climate and habitat. Within the
same river basin, the various species adapted to particular niches of habitat.
In the Columbia River Basin, chum salmon spawn in the lower reaches of the
mainstem river, rarely found above Bonneville Dam 140 miles inland from the
ocean. Juvenile chum salmon migrate to the sea shortly after hatching.
salmon spawn in the mainstem Columbia and its larger tributaries. There is a
distinct lower-river run, generally found downstream of The Dalles and
Bonneville dams, and a distinct upriver run. The lower-river fall Chinook are
known as tules (TOO-lees), and when they return from the ocean they are ready
to spawn. Their sides have lost their silvery luster and turned quite dark;
their hooked snouts and breeding teeth are well-developed. The upriver fall
Chinooks retain their bright sides and firm flesh as they swim through the
lower river. Their sides remain bright until they reach their spawning grounds.
“Upriver bright” is a term for these upriver fall Chinook, which are favored by
commercial and sport fishers for their large size and firm flesh.
are divided among spring, summer and fall subspecies, depending on what time of
the year they return from the ocean to spawn. In the Columbia, spring Chinook
begin their journey to the spawning grounds from March through May, summer
Chinook return from June through July, and fall Chinook return from August
through November. There are no winter-run Chinooks in the Columbia, unlike
rivers farther south, such as the Sacramento. Spring Chinook and steelhead
spawn in headwaters areas of tributaries. The juvenile spring Chinook spend a
year in freshwater before going to the ocean. These fish also are called
“stream-type” salmon because they spend their first year or so in the streams of
Chinook spawn in the middle reaches of tributaries. In the Snake River Basin,
summer Chinook are known as spring/summer Chinook because they have adapted a
life history similar to the spring Chinook that spawn higher in the tributaries.
Like spring Chinook, the spring/summer Chinook spend a year or so in the
habitat after hatching before going to the ocean. In the Columbia tributaries,
however, summer Chinook tend to spawn in the lowest reaches of tributaries.
Chinook, such as those in the Hanford Reach and the Snake River, spawn in the
mainstem river and the lower reaches of its tributaries. Fall Chinook juveniles
can migrate to the sea a few months after hatching. Because they leave for the
ocean sooner than other salmon species, fall Chinook and most summer Chinook
salmon are known as “ocean-type” salmon.
in the Columbia River Basin, which have a similar life history to spring
Chinook, return from the ocean between June 1 and November 1, with that time
period about evenly split between summer steelhead and winter steelhead,
although winter steelhead also can return after November 1. Summer steelhead
spawn in tributaries throughout the anadromous fish range of the Columbia River
Basin; winter steelhead are found mainly in tributaries downstream of Oregon’s
Deschutes River. Columbia River coho, which also have a stream-type life
history, return from the ocean between late August and early November. Sockeye,
unique among salmon species because they spawn and rear in lakes, can spend up
to two years in freshwater before going to the ocean. They return about June 1
through August 1.
Lewis and Clark commented on the abundance of salmon in the Columbia. The expedition
arrived at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers in October 1805,
probably just after the peak of the fall Chinook run. They saw
Indians fishing for salmon and, along the shores, Indians
drying salmon on racks and pounding it into solid blocks of meat to be stored
for future use. Salmon and steelhead were a primary food source for Columbia
River Indians, more so in the lower reaches of the river where the fish were
more abundant than in the farther upriver parts of the basin.
Gustavus Hines, whose Wild Life In Oregon, published in 1881, described
the pioneer life and included descriptions of industries and natural resources,
called the Columbia the “Mississippi of the Pacific Slope.” Hines arrived in
Oregon in 1840 to assist the Rev. Daniel Lee at his mission at The Dalles. At
The Dalles he joined a community of missionaries that included 25 adults, their
18 or 19 children and numerous children of the local Indians. The missionaries
farmed several hundred acres and kept herds of horses and livestock. Hines
familiarized himself with his surroundings; the subtitle of his book promised
adventure: “Being a Stirring Recital of Actual Scenes of Daring and Peril Among
the Gigantic Forests and Terrific Rapids of the Columbia River.” About salmon,
are rivers in the world which afford a greater variety of fish, than this
[Columbia], but perhaps there are none that supply greater quantities. Sturgeon
are caught in abundance, but salmon is the principal fish. Of these, there are
various kinds, but in this country they are generally distinguished by the
names spring-salmon and fall-salmon. They literally fill the rivers of Oregon,
in their season. And at all the falls and cascades in the various rivers of the
country, the quantities taken and that might be taken, are beyond calculation.
As they penetrate far into the interior, they afford almost inexhaustible
supplies to the Indian tribes of the country, as well as the whites, many of
whom depend almost entirely upon such supplies, for the first year, after
settling in the country.
were a staple food source for early pioneers in the lower Columbia River Basin,
including the Willamette River valley. In 1833, for example, the region’s first
school teacher, John Ball, a lawyer and businessman who taught at Fort
Vancouver during the winter of 1832-33, wrote: “Deer and elk are plentiful, and
one can always get salmon at the [Willamette] falls to eat. Hogs, horses, and
cattle are easily raised.”
Over time commercial fishing for salmon grew to be an important industry
on the Columbia, particularly in the lower river downstream of the
Portland/Vancouver area, as did sport fishing for salmon and
steelhead in the Columbia and its tributaries. Salmon runs declined over time for
a variety of reasons, from overfishing to the impacts of dams
destruction of spawning and rearing habitat.