Salmon Are Shapeshifters (Kind Of)

This article explores the characteristics of salmon.


1/3/20234 min read


Almost everyone has eaten Salmon at least once in their life. They have a rich and oily taste to them, lacking the flakiness of other fish like cod. Even though many people look upon salmon as another regular fish that’s a nice delicacy, they have one of the most interesting lives of any fish imaginable.

Salmon begin their lives in freshwater creeks or streams and occasionally rivers born from small salmon roe (otherwise known as eggs). They emerge as Alevins from their eggs and slowly begin to eat the egg sac they were born with attached to them. When they eat the egg sac, they emerge as what are called “fry”.

First Step

Second Step

Upon becoming a fry, the salmon have many options that they could pursue and choose to take. Typically, these options depend on the species, of which there are five; chinook (or king), chum, sockeye, pink, and coho. These fish range in size, nature, taste, and lifestyle. Some of these fry such as pink and chum salmon will head almost directly to the sea while sockeye, chinook, and coho salmon will spend extra time in freshwater, depending on predators and cover from predators.

Third Step

At some point in their life as a fry, the salmon will begin their seaward migration going downstream and to the ocean. Smolting will soon begin and the salmon will gain scales and start to change to a silver metallic color. During the cover of night and protected from predators, small fry will allow the current to take them downstream while larger fry begin their journey to the ocean. These salmon will soon adjust to their new conditions and environments and will feed excessively in order to ensure survival later on. One part of the water system is crucial to these young fish and that is the estuaries. Estuaries are at the area where the ocean meets the mouth of the river, creating a current and a brackish mix of water providing perfect conditions for these young salmon.

Fourth Step

Now, the salmon enter their ocean life where they adapt to the ocean and its many prey and predators. Again, depending on the salmon, the time spent in the ocean can range from 8 years to a fixed 18 months. These fish now have a very silvery appearance, giving off features such as metallic colors mixed with blackish stripes and dots. They survive fairly well once they reach the ocean since they are towards the top of the food chain, only short of the salmon shark, fishers, and other larger predators.

Fifth Step

Within their amount of time at sea, they begin to head back to the same exact spot they were born in order to spawn, once again, repeating the cycle. It is still unknown how these salmon can detect their natal streams, but it is theorized that chemical cues, familiar scents, and the sun all play crucial parts in their return. They typically all have a known season in which mass amounts of them will all rush to their freshwater homes, providing cues for fishers of when to target the species. Once the salmon are almost home, they being to change colors and features in order to gain attention to breed. Some salmon have more pronounced changes than others, such as the sockeye salmon gaining a hump in their back with a green head and crimson red body, and blue fins. Once the salmon get into complete freshwater, they stop feeding and begin a rigorous journey to reach their spawning locations. The extreme journey they go on withdraws energy from their fat, muscles, and organs. Males develop hooked noses known as kype in order to fight for dominance. These salmon quite literally swim up raging currents and waterfalls in order to get back home as their bodies will slowly start to decay and their organs will start to fail.

Final Step

Finally, the salmon reach their spawning spot and the females build their nests known as redds. These are depressions in the gravel made by the female, using her tail to excavate the gravel and create a perfect lodging spot. Males will begin to fight each other to gain spawning rights with females. The dominant males will then court the female and eggs will be produced, settling into the gravel while females cover the eggs with more gravel, stones, sticks, and whatever else they can find. After doing this, the males and females will both die, which supplies the river's ecosystem with nutrients and the byproducts needed for the next generation and cycle. This ends the entire long-lived life of an Alaskan salmon.


"The Salmon Life Cycle - Olympic National Park (U.S. National Park Service)". Nps.Gov, 2023, Accessed 1 Jan 2023.

"Smoltification – Fishionary". Fishionary.Fisheries.Org, 2017, Accessed 1 Jan 2023.

"PAPA BEAR ADVENTURES BEGINNERS GUIDE TO SALMON IDENTIFICATION — Papa Bear Adventures". Papa Bear Adventures, 2020, Accessed 1 Jan 2023.

Pariona, Amber et al. "Amazing Natural Phenomena: The Great Salmon Run". Worldatlas, 2017, Accessed 1 Jan 2023.

2014-2015, Washington. "Washington Sport Fishing Rules 2014-2015". Issuu, 2014, Accessed 1 Jan 2023.

George, Phil, and William Baillie Grohman. “Columbia River Salmon.” CRITFC, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, 4 Nov. 2021,

Third Step
The Final Step