Loved and celebrated by locals, visitors, nature enthusiasts, and anglers alike, salmon are special in Butte County, specifically the Chinook, which makes the area its home and is considered the king of wild Pacific salmon. Unlike most fish, which live in either freshwater or saltwater, salmon, including Butte County’s beloved Chinook, are anadromous—meaning that they hatch in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean to feed and grow, then return to fresh water to spawn the next generation. The salmon returning to Butte County from the Pacific Ocean need to travel almost two hundred miles to make that trip!
The largest migration of fall-run Chinook salmon occurs during September and October. The Feather River Fish Hatchery in Oroville is a great place to visit any time of year, but it shines during the fall run. There are two sections of the Feather River Fish Hatchery to visit on both the eastern and western sides of Table Mountain Boulevard. On the eastern side, you can come face-to-face with the returning fish at underwater viewing windows. There’s also a great view of the fish barrier dam where salmon attempt to jump up the cascading Feather River. The western side includes the fish spawning rooms, hatchery, and rearing ponds where millions of Chinook salmon and steelhead are cared for and eventually released. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday, but you can enjoy self-guided tours any day of the week. (Due to COVID-19, the western side of the fish hatchery is closed for 2020, but the eastern side viewing window remains open.)
Come spring, Butte County is one of the few places left in California where threatened spring-run Chinook salmon can spawn naturally. Populations declined in the twentieth century but efforts to improve conditions in the Butte Creek watershed have created a salmon success story. The Butte Creek Ecological Reserve, operated by Chico State, protects a 93-acre portion of this important habitat. Spring-run Chinook salmon can also navigate up Big Chico Creek into Bidwell Park. The spring run peaks May through June.
Get Up-Close with Salmon
Anyone wishing to get an up-close view of Butte County’s migrating salmon will find plenty of opportunities to do so, especially during the fall run, via kayaks on our many waterways. On the Feather River, you can launch at the fish hatchery under the Table Mountain Boulevard bridge. Stay nearby and enjoy the basalt bedrock lining the river or head downstream for a relaxing two mile paddle to Riverbend Park, where you’ll be sure to see salmon jumping out of the water.
Make your day a wildlife-seeking adventure by paddling the Feather River 7.3 miles downstream to the Thermalito Afterbay outlet or 8.7 miles to the Vance Avenue parking area in the Oroville Wildlife Area.
The ultimate Feather River experience is to kayak 17 beautiful miles from the Feather River Fish Hatchery to the Gridley boat ramp. Kayakers seeking a big river experience can also explore the Sacramento River near Chico. Salmon and steelhead populate Lake Oroville, the Thermalito Forebay, and the Thermalito Afterbay, too, for those wanting to paddle on flat water.
Butte County loves its salmon run so much that every year, Oroville celebrates the return of fall-run Chinook salmon during the Oroville Salmon Festival. Always taking place on the fourth Saturday in September, it’s a celebration of all things salmon, and visitors can view the salmon run at the fish hatchery, enjoy a street fair, taste various salmon dishes, and more.
Due to the coronavirus, most of the activities for the 2020 Salmon Festival has been cancelled, but you can still celebrate the fall salmon run that weekend with a salmon tour down the Feather River with the Forebay Aquatic Center! On Sat. 9/26 and Sun. 9/27, the Forebay Aquatic Center will offer three trips each day down the Feather River, starting at the Fish Hatchery and ending at Riverbend Park, with a shuttle returning you to your car at the hatchery. It’s the perfect way to learn about the salmon as you get to see them up-close and personal!