California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Coho Salmon Life History


Adult coho salmon enter fresh water from September through January in order to spawn. In the short coastal streams of California, migration usually begins between mid-November and mid- January. Coho salmon move upstream after heavy rains have opened the sand bars that form at the mouths of many California coastal streams, but may enter larger rivers earlier. On the Klamath River, coho salmon begin entering in early to mid-September and reach a peak in late September to early October. On the Eel River, adult coho salmon return four to six weeks later than on the Klamath River. Arrival in the upper reaches of these streams generally peaks in November and December. Timing varies by stream and/or flow.

Spawning and Egg Development

Generally, coho salmon spawn in smaller streams than do Chinook salmon. In California, spawning occurs mainly from November to January, although it can extend into February or March if drought conditions are present. In the Klamath and Eel rivers, spawning occurs in November and December. Females usually choose spawning sites near the head of a riffle, just below a pool, where the water changes from a laminar to a turbulent flow and there is a medium to small gravel substrate. The female digs a redd (nest) by turning partly on her side and using powerful, rapid movements of the tail to dislodge the gravels, which are transported a short distance downstream by the current. Repeating this action creates an oval-to-round depression at least as deep and as long as the fish. Eggs and milt (sperm) are released into the redd, where, because of the hydrodynamics of the redd, they tend to remain until they are buried.

Approximately one-hundred or more eggs are deposited in each redd. The fertilized eggs are buried by the female digging another redd just upstream. The flow characteristics of the redd location usually ensure good aeration of eggs and embryos, and the flushing of waste. Larger coho salmon produce more eggs and there is a definite tendency for fecundity to increase from California to Alaska. Average coho salmon fecundities, as determined by various researchers working on streams in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, range from 1,983 to 2,699 and average 2,394 eggs per female. The fecundity of coho salmon in Washington streams ranged from 1,440 to 5,700 eggs for females that were 44 cm to 72 cm in length.

In California, eggs incubate in the gravels from November through April. The incubation period is inversely related to water temperature. California coho salmon eggs hatch in about forty-eight days at 48°F, and thirty-eight days at 51.3°F. After hatching, the alevins (hatchlings) are translucent in color. This is the coho salmon's most vulnerable life stage, during which they are susceptible to siltation, freezing, gravel scouring and shifting, desiccation, and predation. Alevins remain in the interstices of the gravel for two to ten weeks until their yolk sacs have been absorbed, at which time their color changes to that more characteristic of fry. The fry are silver to golden with large, vertical, oval, dark parr marks along the lateral line that are narrower than the spaces between them.

Fry and Juveniles

Fry emerge from the gravel between March and July, with peak emergence occurring from March to May, depending on when the eggs were fertilized and the water temperature during development. They seek out shallow water, usually moving to the stream margins, where they form schools. As the fish feed heavily and grow, the schools generally break up and individual fish set up territories. At this stage, the fish are termed parr (juveniles). As the parr continue to grow and expand their territories, they move progressively into deeper water until July and August, when they inhabit the deepest pools. This is the period when water temperatures are highest, and growth slows. Food consumption and growth rate decrease during the winter months of highest flows and coldest temperatures (usually December to February). By March, parr again begin to feed heavily and grow rapidly.

Rearing areas used by juvenile coho salmon are low-gradient coastal streams, lakes, sloughs, side channels, estuaries, low-gradient tributaries to large rivers, beaver ponds, and large slackwaters. The most productive juvenile habitats are found in smaller streams with low-gradient alluvial channels containing abundant pools formed by large woody debris. Adequate winter rearing habitat is important to successful completion of coho salmon life history.

Smolt Emigration and Coho in the Ocean

After one year in fresh water, smolts begin migrating downstream to the ocean in late March or early April. In some years emigration can begin prior to March and can persist into July. Peak downstream migration in California generally occurs from April to early June. Factors that affect the onset of emigration include the size of the fish, flow conditions, water temperature, dissolved oxygen (DO) levels, day length, and the availability of food. Low stream productivity, due to low nutrient levels or cold water temperatures, can contribute to slow growth, potentially causing coho salmon to postpone emigration. There may be other factors that contribute to a freshwater residency of longer than one year, such as late spawning, which can produce fish that are too small at the time of smolting to migrate to sea.

The amount of time coho salmon spend in estuarine environments is variable, and the time spent there is less in the southern portion of their range. Upon entry into the ocean, the immature salmon remain in inshore waters, congregating in schools as they move north along the continental shelf. Most remain in the ocean for two years; however, some return to spawn after the first year, and these are referred to as grilse or jacks. Data on ocean distribution of California coho salmon are sparse, but it is believed that the coho salmon scatter and join schools from Oregon and possibly Washington.