Juvenile coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) were placed on five dietary regimes: fed 1 week, fasted 1 week, fed 3 weeks, fasted 3 weeks, and fasted 1 week/refed 2 weeks. Plasma levels of glucose, fatty acids, insulin, glucagon, and glucagon-like peptide (GLP) and the activities of key metabolic enzymes were determined. Plasma glucose levels in the fed control groups were 98.4 +/- 3.4 (SEM) and 104.8 +/- 4.7 mg/dl at 1 and 3 weeks, respectively. Plasma glucose in the fasted 1 week group was significantly elevated to 128.8 +/- 9.2 mg/dl. Animals fasted 3 weeks or fasted 1 week/refed 2 weeks displayed plasma glucose levels similar to those of fed animals. Fasted groups possessed significantly less liver glycogen than fed or fasted/refed groups. Plasma fatty acids were elevated only after 3 weeks of fasting (from 0.39 +/- 0.04 microEq/ml to 0.61 +/- 0.06 microEq/ml). This response was reflected in elevated liver lipase activity (from 6.02 +/- 0.44 nmol fatty acid released/hr/mg protein to 14.22 +/- 0.90 units). No significant alterations in liver lipogenesis, assessed by glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase activity and by 3H2O incorporation into fatty acids, were observed. Gluconeogenic flux, determined indirectly through kinetic parameters of pyruvate kinase, was enhanced in animals fasted 3 weeks and in animals recovering from a 1-week fast. Plasma insulin levels were highest in fed groups (7.7 +/- 2.3 and 5.9 +/- 1.4 ng/ml at 1 week and 3 weeks, respectively) and were significantly depressed in fasted groups. Plasma levels of glucagon and GLP were also depressed in fasted groups. These results indicate that plasma glucose levels are maintained in salmon during fasting and that fasting-induced hyperlipidemia is mediated by lipolytic enzyme activity. Insulin, glucagon, and GLP may interact with these enzyme systems to coordinate nutritional metabolism of fish.