Salmon Life Cycle

teaching toolsalmon song

No matter the age of kids you are working with, “The Salmon Song” is a great way to remember all of the life stages. Click on the lyrics on the right and you’ll be re-directed to a printout page of the lyrics and movements for this catchy song.

 Video 2 shows the song being sung by a group of students too!

Pacific salmon begin their lives in freshwater as a fertilized egg, then change and develop the ability to live in saltwater, where they will mature.  They then return to freshwater streams as adult fish to reproduce and die.  Their ability to migrate from freshwater to salt water in order to feed and grow make them anadromous.  

For a more indepth discussion on the miracle of this cycle, check out Video 1 and Video 4 in our video series for fish. 


We will start with the spawner.

When the female adult returns from the ocean to freshwater, her eggs begin to ripen, and when ready she will dig a redd in the gravel with her tail.  Where she chooses to deposit her eggs will depend on several factors: clean and well oxygenated water, constant cold water temperature, the correct velocity and depth of water, and the correct size and depth of gravel.  During this time, male salmon are fighting for breeding rights.  The winning male will wait nearby and after the female has deposited her eggs into the red, the male will fertilize them with milt. The female will the cover her eggs with gravel, and move to another spot to deposit more eggs.  This process is called spawning.

After the eggs have time to develop, the young salmon will break through the egg’s shell  - they will still have a yolk sac attached to their abdomen, and it is at this stage when they are called alevin.  The alevins use the yolk sac for food, and depend on the gravel for protection.

chart for life cycle

Once they have used up their yolk sac, they are referred to as fry, and they will come out of the gravel bed.  Depending on the species, they will look for different kinds of habitat to grow in.

Also dependent on the species of salmon, the fry will spend varying amounts of time in fresh water before they become smolts (Chart to the right)  At this point, they will swim up into the surface currents, which helps them migrate downstream to saltwater estuaries at the mouth of the river where they hatched.  

It is in the estuary that smolts undergo several internal and external changes that will allow them to thrive in the ocean as adults. 

Depending on the species, smolt will spend varying amounts of time feeding and growing in the ocean.  After this time, they are drawn back to spawn in the streams where they were hatched.

Ready to learn more about the different salmon species found in the Kuskokwim