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California Coho Salmon

Blog by: David Coulson , Colorado 5/28/2015

Thereís little doubt that I have a fond spot in my heart for the salmonids (Salmonidae family), as do most fly fishers.  This large family includes trout, char, grayling, and Atlantic and Pacific salmon. 

Someday I hope to catch all the Pacific Salmon on a fly.  To date, however, my experience fishing for them is limited to the occasional trip to Alaska where I targeted primarily coho (silver) salmon, and managed a few pink (humphy) in the process.  The attraction to the coho was simple; they readily take flies when they enter the rivers and streams to spawn.

Unfortunately, or in some ways very fortunate, coho are protected in California.  Itís illegal to fish for them, and should one be caught while fishing for other species, anglers are expected to release them immediately and unharmed.   Itís unfortunate that California coho are endangered, itís fortunate that efforts are being made to reverse the situation.

Adult coho run from 15 to 30 inches and weigh from 6 to 15 pounds typically, although larger specimens have been recorded.  While in the ocean their coloration is steel-blue along the back, in some cases theyíll take on a greenish hue.  Their sides are typically silvery and the belly is whitish. Numerous small, irregular black spots can be found on the back and sides above the lateral line.  Adults have black mouths with white gums at the base of the teeth in the lower jaw.  This is the most reliable way to distinguish coho from chinook salmon.

When they enter streams and rivers to spawn they become more drab in appearance.  Head and back are a dark bluegreen, and the sides maroon-brownish in color sporting a bright red streak along the lateral line.

Coho leave the ocean from September through January to spawn. In California coastal streams this migration typically occurs mid-November and mid- January. Silver salmon spawn tend to prefer smaller streams than chinook.  Spawning sites tend to be near the heads of riffles. Females dig redds, shallow nests in the gravel. Around 100 or more eggs are then laid and fertilized.

Incubation time is inversely related to temperature. The eggs hatch in about 38 to 48 days in 51 to 48 degree water. The hatchlings are translucent. They remain in the gravel for 2 to 10 weeks while they absorb their yolk sacs and turn into fry. Fry are silverfish with dark parr marks along the lateral line. The young remain in fresh water for about a year then migrate to the ocean in early spring. Coho then spend one to three years in the ocean before returning to spawn.

Coho salmon historically ranged as far south to northern Monterey Bay, maybe further south, but the data is sparse on that account.

The following is from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

In August, 2002 the California Fish and Game Commission issued a finding that coho salmon warranted listing as a threatened species from the Oregon border south to Punta Gorda and as an endangered species from Punta Gorda south to San Francisco including the Bay (south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay was listed by the State as endangered in 1995). At the same time, pursuant to section 2114 of the Fish and Game Code, the Commission directed the Department of Fish and Game to develop a Recovery Strategy.

For more information I strongly encourage you to follow the links provided and read more about this beautiful native California fish.  Let us hope that CDFW is successful in their recovery efforts so that we can once again enjoy angling for coho salmon in California waters.

Blog content © David Coulson