Connecticut River Coordinator's Office
Northeast Region
Photo of an Atlantic salmon held in human hands - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo of an Atlantic salmon held in human hands. Credit: USFWS


Sea-run Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are bright and silvery, with a bluish-green dorsal area shading to white below. In freshwater, they turn dark gray to reddish brown. Adult Atlantic salmon average 30 inches in length and typically weigh 7 to 12 pounds. Their latin name means "the leaper," as they are able to leap up to 12 feet over obstacles, if conditions are right. Juvenile salmon, residents in freshwater streams in the basin, look so similar to trout that the species are often confused. Coloration and size can be identical. Juvenile salmon have a shorter mouth and a more forked tail than trout, but often these features can be distinguished only upon careful inspection.

Drawing of an Atlantic salmon - Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Drawing of an Atlantic salmon. Credit: USFWS

Life History

Atlantic salmon are anadromous, migrating from the ocean to fresh water specifically to reproduce. In the Connecticut River system, most adults migrate from the ocean to the river in the spring. A smaller number migrate upriver in early fall. They stop eating when they enter fresh water, living off their body fat and tissues for up to a year. The adult salmon seek cold water areas to spend the summer, moving to swift-running, gravelly tributaries to spawn in October and November. Unlike their Pacific cousins, Atlantic salmon do not always die after spawning, and can return to the ocean. The eggs are buried in gravel nests, called redds, and hatch in March and April. After three to four weeks under the gravel, the fry emerge to seek food and establish feeding territories. The young salmon, called parr, spend one to three years in their natal stream. When they are about 6 inches long, the salmon, now called smolts, undergo physical changes (so they can live in saltwater), become silvery in color and then migrate to the ocean. They travel thousands of miles to their North Atlantic feeding grounds, where they remain for 1-3 years before returning to their natal stream in the Connecticut River basin to reproduce.


In the United States, sea-run populations of Atlantic salmon are found only in the rivers of New England. Landlocked populations are native to some lakes in Maine and have been introduced into other lakes and water bodies for recreational fishing purposes. Atlantic salmon are also found throughout eastern Canada, Iceland, and much of northern Europe. Historically, the species thrived throughout New England, but by the mid-1800's, Atlantic salmon had disappeared from the rivers south of the Penobscot in Maine. Currently, adult Atlantic salmon have reached as far north as the Ammonoosuc River, about as far as salmon can pass upstream since the Rygate dam (at river mile 273) blocks upstream passage completely. Juvenile Atlantic salmon are stocked in streams throughout the watershed as far north as the Nulhegan River (Vermont, about 350 miles upstream).


Atlantic salmon and brook trout are the only salmonids native to the Connecticut River. (Lake trout and Arctic char are native to the Connecticut River watershed but are not stream salmonids.) Both brown and rainbow trout have been introduced. The Connecticut River stock of Atlantic salmon became extinct in the very early 1800s due to dam construction, overfishing and pollution. The Atlantic salmon that we see in the Connecticut River today are the result of a successful reintroduction that has resulted in annual returns of salmon. Atlantic salmon from Canada and Maine were used to restore the Atlantic salmon run here. As a consequence, the Connecticut River stock of Atlantic salmon is not currently considered to be an endangered species, unlike the remnant stocks in some Maine rivers.

Restoration Efforts

Atlantic salmon restoration was first attempted in the 1800's, but ultimately failed due to lack of interstate cooperation. The current restoration of Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River basin began in 1967. It is a major cooperative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, State fish and wildlife departments in the watershed, private organizations, and industry. The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission was established by Congress in 1983 to provide guidance to these many entities and to ensure cooperation. Management practices include raising salmon in hatcheries, capturing and spawning sea-run Atlantic salmon, stocking juveniles in tributaries, and providing access to habitat by building fish passage facilities. These cooperative management efforts have resulted in the successful reintroduction of Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River watershed. See the Strategic Plan, available under Documents, for more information about the historic, current, and future status of the restoration program.


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Last updated: September 14, 2010
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