Concern over global climate change is widespread, but quantifying relationships between temperature change and animal fitness has been a challenge for scientists. Our approach to this challenge was to study migratory Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), fish whose lifetime fitness hinges on a once-in-a-lifetime river migration to natal spawning grounds. Here, we suggest that their thermal optimum for aerobic scope is adaptive for river migration at the population level. We base this suggestion on several lines of evidence. The theoretical line of evidence comes from a direct association between the temperature optimum for aerobic metabolic scope and the temperatures historically experienced by three Fraser River salmon populations during their river migration. This close association was then used to predict that the occurrence of a period of anomalously high river temperatures in 2004 led to a complete collapse of aerobic scope during river migration for a portion of one of the sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) populations. This prediction was corroborated with empirical data from our biotelemetry studies, which tracked the migration of individual sockeye salmon in the Fraser River and revealed that the success of river migration for the same sockeye population was temperature dependent. Therefore, we suggest that collapse of aerobic scope was an important mechanism to explain the high salmon mortality observed during their migration. Consequently, models based on thermal optima for aerobic scope for ectothermic animals should improve predictions of population fitness under future climate scenarios.