Fishing for Salmon? Do You Know the Different Salmon Species?
Did you know that there are five species of Pacific salmon and one species of Atlantic salmon? Further, did you know that all 5 species of Pacific salmon run wild in Alaska?
We're proud of our wild salmon here in Alaska, and rightly so. On the one hand the wild salmon are great sport fish and we Alaskans love to spend gorgeous summer weekends challenging them.
On the other hand our commercial fisheries are healthy and self-sustaining. They are able to catch enough wild salmon to satisfy most of the world wide demand for fresh wild fillets in the restaurants and packaged wild salmon on grocery store shelves.
The Chinook salmon is nicknamed king salmon in Alaska. It is the official Alaska state fish.
Of all the Pacific salmon the king is the largest. A 97-pound king was caught by a sport fisherman in 1986 on the Kenai River. In 1949 a 126 pound king was caught commercially near Petersburg, Alaska. Typically king salmon weigh 30 pounds and above.
The king is lightly and irregularly spotted on their blue-green back. They also have a black pigment along their gum line. Spawning kings in fresh water range in color from red to copper to almost black.
All species of Pacific salmon hatch in fresh water, spend part of their life cycle in the ocean, then return to fresh water to spawn.
The king salmon generally live 5 to 7 years, though they can mature by their second to third year. As a result the kings in a spawning run can vary greatly in size. A mature 3-year old may only weigh 4 pounds while a mature 7-year old may exceed 50 pounds.
The young king salmon feed on plankton and insects during their fresh water period. During their second year they migrate to the ocean where they grow rapidly.
Some kings make immense spawning migrations. For example, many of the Yukon River kings will migrate over 2,000 miles during a 60 day period to reach the streams and headwaters in Yukon Territory, Canada.
The king salmon has a rich flavor, firm flesh, and a pleasing red color. Kings caught at the mouth of the Yukon River have a huge store of oil in their flesh for their long upriver migration. The result is an extra-rich flavor, much prized among those who love salmon.
The Sockeye salmon is also called the red salmon due to the bright red color of its flesh, and it is the second most abundant salmon species in Alaska.
Sockeye salmon are the slimmest and most streamlined of the 5 species of Pacific salmon. They differ from kings, silvers, and pink salmon by the lack of large black spots, and they differ from chum salmon by having more gill rakers on the first gill.
Sockeye are generally a greenish-blue color with silver sides and a white or silver belly.
During the spawning season the Sockeye males develop a humped back and a hooked jaw. Both male and female Sockeye turn brilliant to dark red as they head upriver to their spawning grounds.
After hatching during the winter and spending a few months in the river gravels, the juvenile Sockeye spend 1 to 3 years in freshwater before migrating to the ocean.
The Sockeye spend 1 to 4 years in the ocean, ranging thousands of miles while feeding and then returning to the same freshwater system where they were born. They reach an average size of 4 to 8 pounds, sometimes reaching in excess of 15 pounds.
Bristol Bay, in southwestern Alaska, annually harvests the largest number of Sockeye salmon in the world. About 10 million to 30 million Sockeye are caught during a short season that lasts only a few weeks.
The Sockeye salmon has an exquisitely rich flavor due to the high concentration of oils. It is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids. The rich red flesh color is maintained throughout cooking which results in a beautiful presentation. Some people consider the Sockeye to be the most flavorful of all the salmon species.
Coho salmon are known as silver salmon in Alaska and are an excellent game fish.
Coho salmon have bright silver sides and have small black spots on their back.
Spawning salmon of both sexes develop red to maroon colored sides. The males develop a hooked snout with large teeth.
Juvenile silvers live in ponds and lakes formed by rivers and streams. They generally spend one to three years in the streams and may spend as many as 5 winters in lakes before migrating to the ocean.
Silvers stay in the ocean, where they grow quickly, for about 18 months before returning to their home streams. They weigh from 8 to 12 pounds, but can range up to 31 pounds. Their length ranges from 25 to 35 inches.
The flesh color of silver salmon is orange-red and is retained during cooking. The texture is firm and the fat content is high. The taste is a pleasing full salmon flavor, slightly milder than that of the Sockeye. The size of a fillet is larger than that of the Sockeye, and it is a prized fish for cooking.
Pink salmon are also known as the humpback in Alaska. Prior to spawning the pink salmon develops a pronounced hump on its back.
The color of the pink salmon is generally a bright steely blue on top and silver on the sides. It has many large black spots on its back and over the entire tail fin. It has small scales and its flesh is pink, befitting its name.
The spawning pink salmon develops an olive green to black color on its back with a light-colored to white belly. It develops a very pronounced hump and hooked jaws.
The young pink salmon hatch during the winter and spend a few months in the river gravels. During the spring they migrate downstream to the ocean. They feed along the beaches before moving out further into the ocean.
Like all salmon, the pinks grow rapidly in the ocean but they are the smallest of the Pacific salmon species. The pinks reach a size of about 3 to 5 pounds and about 20 to 24 inches in length.
The pink salmon spends only two years in the ocean. This two year pattern causes distinct odd-year and even-year cycles which are unrelated to each other.
When the pinks return to freshwater, they are the most abundant of the Pacific salmon species. They do not migrate far upriver, but generally spawn within a few miles of the mouth of the river. As with the other Pacific species both male and female pinks will die within a couple of weeks of spawning.
The pink salmon has a delicate, mild flavor and a light flesh color. About 80% of harvested pinks are canned and are the most common salmon species found on grocery store shelves.
Sometimes called "dog salmon" in Alaska, the chum salmon is a traditional source of dried fish for winter use.
Chum salmon have a metallic greenish-blue back surface with fine black spots. They resemble sockeye and silver salmon so closely that one needs to examine their gills and fins closely to make a positive identification.
When nearing fresh water the chum salmon develops noticeable vertical bars of green and purple, which gives them another nickname, calico salmon.
The spawning chums develop the typical hooked jaws like other Pacific salmon and large teeth, which partially accounts for their other nickname, dog salmon.
As with pink salmon, the young chum do not spend much time in fresh water before migrating out into the ocean. They feed near the mouths of their streams for a period before forming schools and moving further out into the ocean.
The chums spend 3 to 5 years in salt water, growing rapidly after entering the ocean. They generally range in size from 7 to 18 pounds, sometimes reaching 30 pounds in weight.
When the chums return to fresh water they often spawn in the same areas as the pinks, not migrating far up river. One major exception to this pattern is the chum salmon population of the Yukon River. Some of these chums migrate 2000 miles upriver to spawn in Yukon Territory of Canada. These chums have a very high fat content in preparation for their long migration.
Chum salmon have a mild, delicate flavor with a medium red flesh color. However, Yukon River chums, with their higher fat content, have a rich, full flavor similar to Kings and Sockeye.
Atlantic salmon are not native to the Pacific coast but are raised in large numbers in pens. They run wild on the Atlantic coast only. The Atlantic salmon found in markets are farm-raised, generally originating in salmon farms off Chile or British Columbia, Canada.
Atlantic salmon in the wild have silvery sides and belly with greenish-blue coloration on its back.
Spawning Atlantic salmon develop blackish fins and purplish coloration and reddish spots. Surviving adults are dark in color.
In the wild young salmon spend one to three years in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. In the ocean the Atlantic salmon ranges for thousands of miles.
They generally return to freshwater by the age of five. Unlike the five Pacific species of salmon, the Atlantic salmon does not die after spawning. The surviving adults repeat the migration and spawning cycle.