Unlike many parts of the world where particular species of salmon are in danger of extinction, the west coast of British Columbia has long been recognized for its salmon enhancement successes. Combine these achievements with the spectacle of a full run of thousands of salmon of varying species bucking the river current in an struggle to make their way up a raging shallow river to for their first and only attempt at spawning only to die immediately afterward and you can understand why salmon viewing has become an interest that the whole family can benefit from every fall.
Blend the outing to the river with a trace of instruction on the life cycle and migratory habits of the individual species of local salmon and you are capable of gaining a little understanding of this amazing specter of nature which we are so privileged to have exhibited quite literally in our back yard.
To facilitate good salmon viewing opportunities you require a consistent run of salmon, a network of easily accessible viewing stations, as well as informational signage and perhaps a good interpretive program to round out the visitor experience, Campbell River and all the North Island communities not only have these amenities but they are generally free to the public to enjoy and are typically coupled with interpretive programs, instructional signage and in the case of many of our hatcheries, teaching tours are included as well.
For the sake of this publication we will be dealing only with the salmon that we are readily able to view, however we do possess in most of our inland lakes and streams a variety of trout.
The 6 species of Pacific salmon are amongst our most familiar, they are anadromous, spending from 1 to 7 years at sea and often migrating hundreds if not thousands of miles before returning to spawn in their ancestral streams, rivers, lakes and ponds.
All adult Pacific salmon die after spawning, with the exception of sea run rainbow trout known as steelhead and the unexplained spawning habits of Jack Coho, who when entering the fresh water are immature and return back to the sea for a few more years after they have milked the eggs of fertile females.
Trout do not die when the spawn is complete and are recognized to reproduce several times throughout their lifetime.
Salmon begin the migratory spawn at the end of the spring run-off in the bottom gravel of cold water streams and lakes. Their large sphere-shaped eggs, 4 to 8 mm are deposited in depressions or nests called redds, which are excavated by both the male and the female, each adult female can lay 2500 to 5000 eggs depending on the species. It is worthy of note that in the wild a 1% return rate of adult salmon is considered to be acceptable, however artificial incubation produces a 5% return rate on adult salmon.
After fertilization, the eggs are covered with the gravel by the adults flipping their tail while in a side position, if you are lucky you can actually witness this phenomenon with Chum salmon in the Campbell River as they spawn in the shallow lower channels in November and December and are quite visible when performing their mating rituals. I have actually seen a 35 pound Chum moving boulders that are 10 to 20 centimeters across in an effort to bury their newly laid eggs.
Several months are required for incubation and for the larvae to wiggle up through the gravel. In most species the young begin to migrate to the ocean soon after emerging, on the other hand some species will stay in the fresh water for up to two years following incubation and migrate only when they are in the juvenile state.
All the young of the species have parr marks while in fresh water and for a short time when they enter the salt water, with the exception of Pink Salmon. The young are difficult to identify, their appearance varies only slightly in color, shape and in size.
Over the past 50 years, the Campbell River has been the focus of intense salmon habitat restoration efforts, with every year bringing a new and innovative strategy to increase the natural state of the environment while pressure on the river from human beings increase.
In the past fifteen years at least a half a dozen new spawning channels have been developed on the north side of the Campbell River, many that have experienced great successes in terms of returning salmon in their first season. Combine this with the efforts of the Greenways Land Trust’s whose immeasurable achievement in rehabilitating copious acres of wet lands has reinstated much of the estuary lands into their natural state of balanced health, after decades of industrial devastation.
The Campbell River also plays host to the Canyon View trail, constructed by the Rotary Club of Canada, this trail circumnavigates the upper reaches of the Campbell River and offers many opportunities to view salmon in the numerous channels along the way.
The Quinsam River is a tributary to the Campbell River, on the shores of Quinsam, just a few kilometers from the confluence of the two rivers is one of the most successful salmon Hatcheries on the Pacific coast. It is also one of the best sites to get a close look at 5 species of salmon in their natural habitat, with numerous low bridges over small creeks and holding ponds that pen thousands of salmon as they make their way upstream.
If timed correctly there is also opportunity to view first-hand the process of capture, retention, milking and incubation of wild salmon stock, to be released back into the wild months down the road.
The Quinsam Salmon Hatchery is a function of the Federal Fisheries of Canada.
Directions from Campbell River:
Approximately 5 kilometers northwest of Campbell River’s city center, drive west on Hwy. 28 (follow the signs to Gold River. On your left approximately 200 meters after the intersection with Hwy. 19, you will see a "Fish Hatchery" sign, turn left onto Quinsam Rd. follow the road for 2 kilometers, the hatchery site entrance is clearly marked on the left.
Hours of Operation:
8 am to 4 pm, every day all seasons. There is a gate on the hatchery road that is opened at 7:30 am daily and locked at 4:30 pm. To guarantee that your vehicle is not locked behind the gates please move it out of the area before closing time.
The facility and surrounding river and streams proffer outstanding prospects to view salmon in their natural habitat. The potential is also presented to observe the process of salmon being managed for the purposes of the artificial hatchery.
Please phone ahead for information on regularly scheduled activities. Special tours for groups can be pre-arranged with staff availability. Pamphlets are available for those who are interested in a self-guided tour.
Pink, Coho, Chinook, Steelhead and Cutthroat Trout.
Best Viewing Months:
Adult Pink Salmon
September, -egg-takes at hatchery from September 20 to October 10.
Adult Chinook Salmon
October to November, -egg-takes from October 20 to November 10.
Adult Coho Salmon
October to December, -egg-takes from October 30 to November 30.
This facility and its restoration missions are the work of the volunteer organization, The Oyster River Enhancement Society or (ORES). This facility is completely staffed by volunteers.
Directions from Campbell River:
South on Highway 19A, just south of Miracle Beach Drive turn onto Hamm Road, travel approximately 2 kilometers then onto Macaulay Road. Drive 4.6 kilometers on Macaulay Road to a gated gravel road on your right.
Hours of Operation:
Open to the public on Tuesdays from 8am to 2pm. It is strongly recommended that visitors contact ORES prior to their visit.
As this facility is not always attended for guided tours please contact:
In addition many rearing ponds, an extensive system of rearing and spawning channels have been constructed. Look for spawning Pink Salmon from August to October, Chinook in September and October, Chum in October and November and Coho from October to December. Steelhead Trout and Cutthroat Trout can also be seen.
The celebrity of the city of Campbell River transpires from the long standing reputation of holding the title of the “Salmon Capital of the World”. The entire fuss was initiated by Sir Richard Musgrave who wrote and published an article on October 28, 1896 in “The Field - The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper”.
“Next day was eventful, as I hooked a real monster. I played him for an hour and three-quarters. He turned out to be a 70 lb, which I believe is the biggest salmon ever killed on a rod and line and double gut.”
The article gained great acclaim in England and immediately, fishermen began flocking to Campbell River craving the challenge of landing the fabled 60 – 70 lb Tyee. As the years advanced, increasing numbers of intrepid fishermen realized the dream and Campbell River quickly became world renowned for the superb fishing and unprecedented abundance of large Chinook salmon.
The First Snorkeler
Years later Roderick Haig Brown settled on a couple of acres of land directly adjacent to the Campbell River, a world renowned journalist, environmentalist, fanatic fisherman, magistrate and lover of all things scaly, Roderick with his eloquent writing style, his love of the sport of fishing and his never ending drive for salmon preservation broadcasted chronicles of the attributes of the Campbell River. These narratives prepared the way for thousands of fishermen yearning for the experience that he described so eloquently in his widely published stories.
The inevitability of progress advanced and industry came to this little hick town, Roderick was legitimately concerned with the implications of the proposed building of a Hydro Electric Dam on the Campbell River, and its consequence to the considerable runs of salmon.
“One of my strongest interests and concerns has long been the Pacific salmon runs, not for their commercial value or their value in the sport fishery only, but because of their innate and complex beauty and their symbolic value, though it involves or should involve something more than that – the self – respect and legitimacy of mankind. If, with the knowledge and understanding we now have, we allow this to be destroyed; we ourselves are nothing very important.”
The Stalking of Progress
Not being the brand of man to sit back and stalk progress while it impeded on his precious cycle of salmon, the adventurous Haig Brown embarked on a snorkel of the river in an effort to view the habitat that was the river bottom and the complex migration habits of the salmon with his own eyes. At that time, this was considered a daunting task, as equipment was primitive at best and the activity of snorkeling a river, let alone swimming in one of this magnitude was judged to be a slightly foolish undertaking, keeping in mind that at this point in time, the Campbell River was a natural, free flowing river with shifting volumes of water that were a good deal more significant than they are today.
Roderick’s persistence and tenacity readied him to compile detailed, scientific, and consistent records of the river beds, the migration habits and numbers of each species of salmon, the water levels and a multitude of other factors concerned in the wild salmon stocks, records that set the standard for many studies that persist in biological circles today.
At present the recognition of the name Roderick Haig Brown, Campbell River and BC coast salmon are synonymous, the world over. The moniker “Salmon Capital of the World” is an acknowledged symbol of fishing and the rehabilitation efforts of all of the Pacific salmon species.
The model was established from that first day that Roderick snorkeled the Campbell River, today as a standard practice, fisheries biologists systematically snorkel all rivers in British Columbia, to personally and accurately reckon, document and inspect the size, condition and movement of the migrating salmon and the surrounding changes in habitat.
A Celebration of Salmon
As an adventure diversion and in the interest of education regarding these species, thousands of people today migrate to Campbell River every season to experience the delight of a face to face encounter with some of the world’s largest salmon. Don modern day mask, fins, wetsuit and snorkel and float the river beginning in late July until the weather turns in November, enter the frigid waters to float downstream as the salmon frantically scuttle past in their final passage upstream.
Supplemented by the general public’s yearn for this remarkable adventure, a multitude of journalists continue to enhance the publicity of the salmon swim on the Campbell River by printing articles in such celebrated publications as Time magazine, the National Post, and Outdoor Explorer Magazine, to name just a few.
As Stated in the Weekend Post
“I AM ONE WITH THE SALMON. I have seen the bubbling thrash of white water from below. I have flowed silently over elegant mosaics of multi-coloured river stones. My shadow has darkened the laser beams of sunlight that pierce the surface of the water. I have been startled by the rumble of traffic on bridges. I have heard the rattle of fast water over small pebbles. I have rested in eddies and shunned fishermen. I am one with the salmon.”
Sums it up EH!
Having been an avid river snorkeler for the better part of 25 years, I have had been exalted by the opportunity of snorkeling many rivers on the north Island and the mainland. I have found the Campbell River to be most conducive for viewing salmon for a number of reasons. The first; the consistent flow, the river is neither to shallow nor too deep, second; the river is short and access is easy from a number of spots, third; the runs of salmon are huge and visibility is exceptional.
Having stated a number of positive aspects of snorkeling the Campbell River, a measure of caution is to be exercised. Rivers are dangerous; every year at the very least one person expires on Vancouver Island Rivers. Typically this is owing to the lack of preparation, inexperience or faulty behavior, river flows do not stop, even if you are in trouble; and a lack of respect for their force can prove fatal.
It is my sound suggestion that if you are not experienced in swift water rescue, that you hire a professional experienced guide to accompany you on your tour, plan your excursion, make sure you have adequate instruction prior to embarking on the run and assure that all your gear is appropriate and in good working order.
For the Operation and Pleasure use on or in the Campbell River
In recognition of the increasing pleasure and commercial use of the Campbell River, the following voluntary code of ethics has been developed by the cooperation with industry partners to minimize user impact on the river and promote river safety.
To protect and enhance the Campbell River natural beauty, water quality, aquatic and wildlife resources.
To identify and respect the concern for possible impacts on the river and its resources by all users with the goal of minimizing them.
To communicate the safe use of the river.
Be safe and always swim, boat, snorkel or float with a partner.
Be aware of your surroundings and the river hazards at all times.
Respect all other river users.
Respect all adjacent private property.
Designated spawning channels are not to be disturbed at any time.
While swimming or snorkeling, limit the impact on the fish. No lingering, herding or wolf packing.
Recognize and use designated river entry and exit locations.
Please take all personal items and garbage with you when you leave.
Also known as Pinkies or humpy’s.
Large black, mostly oval spots on all of the caudal fin and upper body, when in the ocean they display a blue or bluish green from above, silvery below. At spawn time the males (only) develop a humped back and a hooked upper jaw, hence the name humpy, at this time the colour changes markedly to reddish to yellowish on the caudal fin. The jaws are not markedly hooked, however an olive green colour is displayed on the side flanks. The young lack parr marks.
Migration of the tiny fry begin immediately, with the emergence from the gravel these salmon move directly out of the fresh water into the estuary where they may spend a couple of months, then they move out into the open ocean in large schools. Pinks are one of the most abundant of west coast salmon, second only to the Sockeye and the first to migrate to our local rivers, which begins mid to late July and may run as late as early September, these salmon can travel a considerable distance upstream to spawn.
It is peculiar of this species that it has a definitive 2 year life span and each stream will only herald a run of Pinks every second year. Despite the fact that they only live 2 years this species has been known to migrate thousands of kilometres from their home streams.
Also known as Silver Salmon
Black spots on the back and on the upper part of the caudal fin, the gums are white at the base of the teeth. In the sea they are metallic blue above; silvery below. At spawning time the males are dusky green on the upper back and head and bright red on the sides, often blackish below; females are bronze to pinkish red on the sides. Sizes are from 98 centimetres and can weigh up to 14 kilograms, but usually they average 2.7 to 5.4 kilograms.
Coho generally spawn in the fall or winter; however the Campbell River is known to have two separate and distinct runs, one that migrates into the river in late June or early July and one that makes its exodus into the river late August to early September. Juvenile Coho favor small streams, sloughs and ponds, but populations can also be found in lakes and large rivers. The young appear in spring and can remain in the fresh water for up to 2 years. Juvenile Coho defend their territories through a series of maneuvers including a complex shimmy-shake, dubbed by scientists the “wig-wag dance”.When spawning the females also change color and develop the hallmark hooked snout, but the alteration is less spectacular, than in the males, although not as pronounced as Chum salmon.
Coho generally remain in the coastal waters near to the streams and rivers of origin. A favorite of the sport fishery, this salmonid is a fierce fighter, it is said that pound for pound this is the best fighting salmon of all.
Matures in 2 to 4 years, most often in the 3rd year.
Also known as Spring, Tyee, King Salmon, Blackmouth and Quinnat Salmon.
The largest of all salmon species specimens - commonly over 14 kilograms. Upper back and all of caudal, dorsal and adipose fin have irregular black spots. The gums and base of the teeth are also black. In the seas Chinook are bluish or greenish to grey or black above and silvery below. Maturing specimens are very dark; smaller males often have a slight dull yellow colour, larger males are often blotchy, and dull red on the sides. Can be to 147 centimetres and average about 7 to 15 kilograms. The largest reported to date was a specimen caught in Alaska which reportedly weighed 61 kg.
Migration and Spawning
Campbell River system, being a relatively large system for Vancouver Island hosts an impressive run of anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 Chinook annually, with adult females laying from 2,500 eggs to 4,000 eggs each. After hatching, Chinook fry remain in fresh water for varying lengths of time depending on water temperature, generally in Vancouver Island systems the Chinook begin leaving the river system as early as January after 5 months in the river, however; a percentage may stay in the system for up to one year.
Chinook are the favorite prey of Resident Killer Whales because of their large size and presence in coastal waters. They are also one of the prize fisheries for the sport fisherman of the West Coast in addition to the commercial fishery. The Flesh of the Chinook salmon may be white as in a winter spring to a light pink which is common in a summer run.
While still feeding in tidal waters, the Chinook is silver, with a greenish blue silvery sheen. Upon entry of fresh water to begin the spawning process the body color darkens and a reddish hue develops around the fins and belly. The teeth of adult spawning males become enlarged and the snout develops into a hook.
These fish, the largest of the Pacific Salmon are reputed to travel vast distances during migration and are found sparsely distributed throughout the Pacific Ocean. Chinook adults returning to spawn vary in age from five to seven years.
Also known as red or blue-back salmon.
The most prominent of the Pacific salmon, sockeye are the most sought after for their superior flesh, color and superiority. Their rich oily flesh and red color render them a favorite with the Canadian and the international public.
Ocean-going sockeye are silver in colour, with small black speckles alongside the body, turning varying shades of red resulting in a scarlet fish with a green head by the time they enter the fresh water. With deep and distinctive colouring and a rich history and economic culture the sockeye salmon has benchmarked itself as the symbol of the salmon industry in the Pacific Region.
Migration and Spawning
This deep coloring, along with the rich cultural, economic and ecological history continue to effect sockeye as the symbol of Salmon in the Pacific Region. Young sockeye may remain in their freshwater nursery lakes for a year or more, with certain schools waiting until the second or third year to make their seaward journey. Migration patterns can be as far away as 2600 kilometers.
One of the most remarkable features of sockeye is a phenomenon called “cyclic dominance”. In any number of lakes in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island, sockeye are plentiful in one of every four years. Sockeye can ripen between two and six years of age however; in most systems, one age group (usually four-year-old fish) dominates, consequently most of the offspring produced in any one “brood-year” return to spawn four years later. This year of increased population’s impact creates a cyclic dominance which leads to spectacular returns.
At one time steelhead was considered to be a trout. With the event of modern technologies biologists have found that they are more closely related to Pacific salmon, when Steelhead stay in fresh water for their entire life they are considered to be a Rainbow Trout.
Once abundant in Vancouver Island Rivers, the steelhead population has declined to disastrous low numbers. There are a number of contributing factors to their demise including the introduction of sea lice, over fishing and habitat degradation.
Young steelhead are brightly coloured with a rainbow stripe represented in shades of red, green-yellow and orange and gold. As they mature they resemble more closely the Atlantic salmon in structure and form with heavier marking. Steelhead diverges from other Pacific salmon in displaying a shorter anal fin containing less than 12 supporting rays. When in the salt water the essence of the body is mainly silvery with a blue back, at spawning time, a stretch of red colour progresses along each side of the body.
Migration and Spawning
Immature steelhead live for one to three years in fresh water before migrating to the salt water as Smoltz, with this exodus taking place in spring. Normally two or more summers are spent in the Pacific Ocean before the steelhead return to seek their familial spawning rivers at the age of four or five. Following the ritual spawn, many adult steelhead return to the ocean and a quantity of the females revisit the freshwater after recuperation to spawn a second time, uncharacteristic of Pacific salmon which expire after their first and only spawning, repeat producer’s are referred to as “kelts”.
Steelhead live up to nine years and spend between one and three years in freshwater before smolting and entering the ocean.
Also known as dog salmon.
Fine specks on the back, but no black spots, in the sea they are metallic blue above, silvery below. Fins mostly dusky, edges of pelvic and anal fins usually pale in mature specimens. At spawning, blackish or dark olive above, sided with reddish or dusky irregular bars or blotches on dull greenish background. White tipped anal and pelvic fins especially in males. Front teeth of males are enlarged which is why they have earned the reputation of being called Dog salmon. Size ranges from 4.5 kilograms to 6.8 kilograms; however they have been caught in our local waters in excess of 15 kilograms. Chum salmon’s oily content earns this salmon the reputation of being the best tasting species for smoking.
Chum salmon are the poorest jumpers of all salmon species; therefore it is unlikely to find them up stream past a waterfall or ladders. Spawning Chum are readily recognized by the dark horizontal stripe running down their sides and the canine-like teeth of the males. The large males display a checkerboard or calico colouration on the upper side. Spawning usually occurs in the lower reaches of streams and rivers and begins in late fall or early winter. The young emerge in spring and early summer and take about 2 days to swim directly to the ocean, where they migrate extensively before returning in 3 to 5 years.
Adults return to the spawning grounds in about 3 to 5 years.