Salmon of the Skagit

Home to all 5 species of Pacific Salmon, the Skagit River is a priceless resource which connects our communities together.

The Skagit River, the largest river in Puget Sound, links the Cascade Mountains to the Sound in a natural corridor for salmon. In fact, more than half of Puget Sound’s Chinook salmon call the Skagit watershed home.


The Salmon Life Cycle

Imagine having 3,999 brothers and sisters: that’s everyday life for a Pacific Salmon! A female salmon can lay anywhere between 2000 to 6000 eggs. Only 0-2 of these eggs will survive to return as a spawning adult. It’s a hard life for Pacific Salmon from the time they are born to their migration back home.

Wild salmon begin their lives as an egg in a gravel nest, called a redd. An adult female salmon will use her tail to dig this nest before she deposits her eggs in the gravel. After the eggs are settled and fertilized by a male salmon, the female will use her tail to cover her eggs with another layer of gravel on top.

alevin and eggs in gravel

alevin and eggs in gravel

Salmon will hatch from their eggs about 80 days after they are fertilized. In this first stage of life, salmon are called alevin and have a distinctive yolk sac attached to their stomachs. This yolk sac is their first food source and contains all the nutrition young salmon need to survive for their first few weeks of life. Alevin will stay in their gravel nest until their yolk sacs are gone and they need to begin finding food.

Juvenile salmon, called fry, depend upon insects and other small animals for food. Salmon at this stage of life are very vulnerable and seek out dark, hidden places to avoid detection by predators. Salmon fry also benefit from calm, slow-moving water and river side channels.

Coho salmon fry

Coho salmon fry



As smolts, salmon begin their transition from freshwater to saltwater by spending a period of time in estuaries, where they are exposed to a mix of waters termed “brackish.” At this stage, salmon are still vulnerable like fry and have a similar appearance. Smolts use their vertical striping, called parr marks, to their advantage as camouflage.

Ocean Adult
Salmon can spend anywhere from 2 to 6 years in the ocean, depending on the species. At this time, salmon develop a characteristic pink color in their flesh from krill and other foods they eat.

spawning Coho salmon  © Jessica Newley

spawning Coho salmon
© Jessica Newley

Spawning Adult
On their upward migration to their spawning grounds, male salmon may develop distinctive spawning coloring, hooked noses, and humps depending on their species. Female salmon lose their silver ocean coloring and take on a darker color. Salmon navigate through their sense of smell, often traveling hundreds of miles to reach home. Once salmon re-enter freshwater, they will stop eating in order to put all their energy into spawning.


salmon life cycle King County


Links to Learn More:

Salmon Recovery in Washington
Salmon Species Information
WDFW 21st Century Salmon & Steelhead Initiative

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