Chinook salmon (Onchorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as King salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon and can grow to be over 100 pounds. These fish have historically been an important food source for Native Americans, including members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. Visitors to Sherar Falls, the scenic rapids on the lower Deschutes, can view fishing platforms built by tribal members who are carrying on a tradition practiced for hundreds of years. Chinook salmon in the Deschutes River are grouped into two runs, based on when the adult fish return to the river to spawn.
Today, spring Chinook are less abundant than fall or summer Chinook and spawn in more limited areas. Adult fish, mostly four-year-olds, return to the Deschutes in April and May and head toward two tributaries on the lower river - the Warm Springs River and Shitike Creek. Spawning occurs in September, and juveniles typically spend about a year and a half in fresh water before migrating to the Pacific.
Historically, spring Chinook spawned in the upper Deschutes Basin, and at one point there may have been four times as many spring Chinook as there are today. The Metolius River was one major spawning area. Others included Whycus Creek, parts of the Crooked River drainage, and the main stem of the Deschutes River. The construction of the Pelton-Round Butte hydropower complex closed off the upper watershed to Spring Chinook in 1968. As part of the relicensing agreement for the Pelton-Round Butte dams, an ambitious effort is underway to restore spring Chinook to the upper watershed and construct a fish passage facility that will allow fish to migrate around the dams.
Today, the Deschutes spring Chinook run is supplemented by fish from two hatcheries. The Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery on the Warm Springs River and the Round Butte Hatchery on the middle Deschutes both release young Chinook. Fishermen can identify hatchery fish because they lack their adipose fin, which is clipped at the hatchery for this purpose. All wild fish, those with adipose fins, must be released. However, concerns about the status of the spring Chinook run is so significant that in some years the recreational spring Chinook fishery has been closed.
Summer/Fall Chinook are more abundant in the Deschutes than spring Chinook, and are considered by some to be part of the healthiest salmon run in the Columbia River Basin. Adults return to the river from August through December and spawn in the lower 100 miles of the main stem of the Deschutes river. Young fish, called alevins, emerge from the streambed in winter and spring and migrate to the ocean that same year. No hatcheries supplement the run, so all summer/fall Chinook in the Deschutes are wild fish. Both Native American and recreational fisheries exist for these Chinook on the Deschutes.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council Deschutes Subbasin Plan, Appendix I: Fish Focal Species - Overview of history and issues surrounding key fish species in the basin.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Deschutes Fall Chinook
NOAA NMFS Listing Status