How to Identify a Tule Salmon – Key Features and Differences

The biggest salmon in the Columbia River are the Fall Chinook. They start coming into the river at the beginning of August, and the run is at its busiest in the middle to end of August.

A lot of these fish are going to rivers that flow into the lower Columbia River, like the Cowlitz, Kalama, and Lewis. Some are going to streams in Idaho or the Hanford Reach section of the Columbia River.

Columbia River Fall Chinook can be broken down into two main subspecies: the Tule Chinook and the Upper Bright Chinook.

The above picture is a perfect example of a Tule Chinook. This fish is a male (also known as a buck) and is fresh from the Pacific Ocean. These fish spawn in rivers that flow into the lower Columbia below Bonneville Dam. They are bronze in color and have a light pink belly. Since they don’t have to swim very far, their bodies quickly change color when they get into fresh water, and sometimes they change color even while they are in the ocean. These fish are aggressive biters and put up a powerful fight!.

It is important for fishermen in the Pacific Northwest to be able to tell the difference between the different species of salmon they catch. One salmon that generates a lot of interest is the Tule salmon. There are some things that make tule salmon different from other salmon, like Chinook, coho, and sockeye. Find out more about what makes a Tule salmon unique and how to spot one for sure by reading on.

Overview of Tule Salmon

Tule salmon also known as Tule Chinook are one of the many subspecies of Chinook or king salmon. Their distinct name comes from their ancestral spawning grounds in the tule marshes and wetlands of California’s Central Valley. However, Tule salmon are now found from California all the way up to Alaska.

During their ocean phase Tule salmon migrate northward along the Pacific Coast up to Alaska. After several years feeding and maturing in the ocean they return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn, primarily in the Columbia River basin.

Tule salmon begin their spawning run earlier than most other Chinook salmon. They start entering the Columbia River as early as July, with peak migration in August and September. This early return gives Tule salmon their nickname of “fall Chinook.”

Why Identifying Tule Salmon Matters

Being able to recognize Tule salmon is important for both ethical and regulatory reasons:

  • Tule salmon populations are under pressure and classified as a “species of concern.” Proper identification allows anglers to release them to help conserve wild stocks.

  • Many regions have specific regulations, seasons, and limits regarding Tule salmon Identifying them helps anglers follow local fishing rules

  • Tule salmon tend to have lower quality flesh as they near their spawning time. Identifying them means retaining only the best salmon for eating.

Distinguishing Physical Features of Tule Salmon

Tule salmon are different from other salmon species because they have a few physical traits that make them stand out:

  • Body shape: Tule salmon have a short, stout, football-shaped body profile unlike the more streamlined shape of other salmon.

  • Spotting pattern: Tule salmon typically display larger spots that extend along their entire tail section. The spots appear denser and darker.

  • Tail size: Relative to body length, Tule salmon have taller, larger tails compared to other salmon.

  • Head shape: A conspicuous hump on the head is often visible on Tule salmon. Their heads tend to be large and blunt.

  • Anal fin: The anal fin on Tule salmon is distinctly rounded with the fin rays angling steeply downwards. It often has a pinkish hue at the base.

  • Coloration: Tule salmon generally exhibit a bronze or olive green back with a pinkish-hued belly. The sides have a dull, brass or brown tone.

  • Adipose fin: Wild Tule salmon always have an intact adipose fin compared to missing on hatchery fish.

Behavioral and Physical Changes Near Spawning

In addition to their steady physical appearance, Tule salmon undergoing their pre-spawn transformations display some identifiable behavioral and physical changes:

  • Increase in aggression and willingness to strike at bait and lures.

  • Development of a pronounced kype or hook jaw on male Tule salmon.

  • Fading of the salmon’s silvery color and transition to darker spawning hues.

  • Pronounced sharp teeth as mouth structure changes to become a spawning tool.

  • Presence of a thick, slimy coating on skin.

  • Visible deterioration of tail, fins, and body as fish near end of life cycle.

  • Strong “fishy” odor resulting from changes in skin, scales, and slime composition.

Tule Salmon vs. Other Columbia River Salmon

The Columbia River watershed harbors multiple overlapping salmon runs. Here is how Tule salmon differ from some other frequently encountered Columbia River salmon species:

  • Chinook “Upriver Brights” – More silvery appearance, fewer spots, and smaller tails than Tule salmon.

  • Coho – Smaller size, lack of spots, and silver coloration distinguish coho from Tule salmon.

  • Sockeye – Sockeye have a streamlined shape, smooth red color, and no spots like Tule salmon display.

  • Pink – Much smaller size and very large spots not extending on tail separate pink salmon from Tule salmon.

Tips for Releasing Tule Salmon

When angling in waters where Tule salmon are present during spawning season, follow these best practices for safely releasing any hooked Tule salmon:

  • Land the Tule salmon as rapidly and carefully as possible. Use wet hands or nets to minimize slime loss.

  • Keep the fish horizontal and supported at all times when handling. Avoid vertical holds.

  • Hold Tule salmon by the head and tail only. Never grip the sensitive belly area.

  • Minimize time out of water. Photographs should take no more than 15-20 seconds.

  • Remove hooks gently using pliers or hook removers. Don’t handle or squeeze the fish.

  • Revive a exhausted Tule salmon in calm water holding it upright until it swims away strongly.

  • Look for signs of injury like bleeding or lack of equilibrium and nurse these fish if releasing.

Releasing Tule salmon with care allows them to continue their critical spawning journey and contribute to future salmon runs.

Identifying Tule Salmon Ensures Sustainable Salmon Fishing

Tule salmon have unique characteristics setting them apart from other Pacific salmon species. Being able to accurately identify Tule salmon helps anglers abide by fishing regulations, selectively harvest salmon, and protect vulnerable wild Tule populations. Familiarizing yourself with the key features of Tule salmon makes you a more informed angler and steward of sustainable salmon fisheries.

how to identify a tule salmon

Alaska Salmon Identification – Alaska Fishin


What is a tule salmon?

Tule Fall Chinook salmon are native to this part of the Columbia River and have historically provided food for people living along the river. Columbia River Indians called them mitula~, or “white salmon,” because the flesh of the salmon is light colored when they return to spawn.

How to identify sockeye salmon?

Adult sockeye salmon can be identified by a lack of black spots on their body or tail. When in saltwater they are bright silver, but once in fresh water, their bodies turn bright red, with a green head. Males develop a humped back, with hooked jaw (kype) and exposed sharp teeth.

How to tell a coho from a steelhead?

Coho are deeper bodied than steelhead, spots are larger and less numerous than on steelhead. Males often have a hook nose. Coloration of mature fish often includes red (maroon) flanks and a green head. Note the white gum line against a black mouth, this will be the most definitive characteristic for identification.

What does a tule salmon look like?

Large black spots – Spots on Tules are larger than other strains of salmon and usually run down the entire tail. Also, the tail on a Tule salmon is larger in proportion to other salmon, typically taller than the head. Football-shaped body – most salmon have sleek bodies, but Tules are thicker in the middle and have a noticeable bump on the head.

Where do Tule salmon come from?

Some Tule Salmon are wild stocks, but a larger percentage are of hatchery origin. The fish leave the Columbia and migrate north up the Pacific Ocean coast to Alaska waters. After four years, the Tule Chinook migrate back to their point of origin in the Columbia River tributary system to spawn.

Are Tule Chinook salmon ready to spawn?

Because Tule Chinook Salmon are lower river fish, most of this strain is ready to spawn as soon as they arrive at their tributary of origin. These fish have biological changes that manifest in a poorer quality of fish. As a salmon gets closer, it will divert its energy stores for reproductive functions.

When do Tule salmon come back?

They return to their point of origin in the early fall, typically between August 1 st and September 1 st. These salmon start their life in multiple locations in the lower Columbia River, most below the Bonneville Dam. Some Tule Salmon are wild stocks, but a larger percentage are of hatchery origin.

Leave a Comment