Each year, thousands of salmon return from the Pacific Ocean to ascend the rivers of the Lower Mainland. It is a fascinating spectacle to behold: myriad teeming fish throwing their bodies up waterways, smashing against rocks, and falling back down, again and again. The urge to reproduce pulls them relentlessly upstream to seek the grounds where they hatched so that they can, in turn, spawn the next generation.
As salmon die after spawning, this will be the last journey of their lives. They must endure taxing physical changes; their bodies literally start to break down as they draw on fat reserves, even muscle and organs, for energy. The event becomes quite dramatic, and you find yourself rooting for the fish to complete their homeward passage.
Five salmon species – chinook, coho, pink, chum, and sockeye – return to spawn in the rivers of this part of the world. After they have spent anywhere from one to seven years in the ocean (either in coastal waters, or feeding grounds further north), they are drawn back to fresh water to spawn. The best time for viewing is once most fish have reached their final spawning grounds, during October through November.
While trout are also known to spawn in the fall, they more commonly reproduce in the spring. Trout can also be harder to spot during spawning, as they prefer smaller streams and lakes over the large rivers that salmon use.
Many of the places to view spawning salmon in the Lower Mainland are surprisingly close to Vancouver and its major suburban municipalities, making it an ideal autumn daytrip for the family. While the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC raises kokanee salmon, a landlocked sockeye, at our Kootenay and Clearwater hatcheries, we don’t raise chinook, coho, pink, chum, or sockeye salmon. However, many of the federal and community hatcheries that raise salmon have interpretative centre and/ or offer tours. Often there are facilities such as picnic tables, washrooms, and walking trails close by.
Use this map to get directions to the hatcheries and viewing sites listed below.
Bell-Irving Fish Hatchery (Kanaka Creek)
Free weekend tours are offered at this small hatchery, located at Kanaka Creek Regional Park in Maple Ridge. Open between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Capilano River Salmon Hatchery
Operated by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the proximity of the hatchery to downtown Vancouver makes it a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. Don’t expect to be the only one viewing salmon jumping up the fish ladder. Chinook and coho can be seen here in both their adult and juvenile forms at various times of the year. The interpretative centre is also open daily for public viewing.
Chehalis River Hatchery
This hatchery is also run by DFO, in partnership with the Chehalis First Nation and the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC. Chinook adults can be viewed in August and October, coho adults from September to November, chinook juveniles from March to May, and coho juveniles year ’round. All tours at this hatchery are self-guided.
Chilliwack River Hatchery
View chinook and coho adults and juveniles at this federal hatchery on Chilliwack Lake Road. A 30-minute self-guided trail loops the hatchery site. Group tours can be organized by phoning ahead.
Hoy Creek Hatchery
Both coho and chum salmon can be seen returning to Scott and Hoy creeks from mid-October to early November at this small urban hatchery in Coquitlam.
Inch Creek Hatchery (Norrish Creek)
View coho and chum adults here each year in November. Time your visit to coincide with the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, which is hosted at the hatchery in mid-November.
Mamquam Spawning Channel (Squamish)
Observe chum and coho salmon that have made their way up Howe Sound and the Mamquam River. There are four kilometres of trails to explore in the area.
Mossom Creek Hatchery and Education Centre
If you’re in the Port Moody area, pop into this hatchery run by the Burrard Inlet Marine Enhancement Society. This dedicated group has worked hard to return coho, chum, and pink salmon to Mossom Creek.
Stave River (Ruskin Recreation Area)
Spawning channels have been created where the Stave River meets the Fraser River opposite Fort Langley. Between October and December, there is the chance to see coho and chum each year here.
Thacker Regional Park
Located near Kawkawa Lake near Hope, pink, chum, and coho salmon return to this location during the fall. Follow the one-kilometre trail upstream along the spawning channel, and then in the opposite direction to the outfall into the Coquihalla River.
Tynehead Hatchery (Serpentine River)
This hatchery is operated by the Serpentine Enhancement Society, a group of community volunteers committed to the conservation of local endangered fish species. The hatchery is located in Tynehead Regional Park in Surrey. Coho, chum, and chinook can be seen at the site.
Weaver Creek Spawning Channel
Since 1965, when the channel was built as a three-kilometre extension to the existing Weaver Creek, sockeye and other salmon have used it for spawning. Peak time to see spawning sockeye is from October 6 to November 1 (note that sockeye return in their highest numbers every four years; the last high-volume run occurred in 2018).
While it’s fine to take pictures of spawning salmon, remember to stay out of the water, and do not disturb the fish. Salmon are a precious resource; disrupting their spawning can diminish the numbers of fish that return to continue the cycle. And if you are interested in dropping a line to try fishing your local river or stream, remember that under the Provincial Freshwater Fishing Regulations it is illegal to fish within a 100-metre radius of any government-operated facility for the counting, passing, or rearing of fish (for example, hatcheries or fishways), and within 23 metres downstream of the lower entrance to any fishway, canal, obstacle, or leap.
Author: Jessica Greinke, Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC