Arctic Char vs. Salmon: Looks, Taste, and Everything Else!
Mar 12, 2021 | 4 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Salmon and Char look pretty similar on paper. They’re both large, predatory salmonids. They both fight hard and taste great. In fact, they’re pretty much the same, right? Wrong. There are plenty of differences between the two species. With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of Arctic Char vs. Salmon, both as fish and as food.

Arctic Char vs. Salmon as Fish

A couple posing with their dog and a large Chinook Salmon on a boat
Chinook are the biggest, but there are lots of Salmons out there!

Let’s make something clear right off the bat: There are a lot of types of Salmon. It’s impossible to really talk about “Salmon” as a single fish, so we’ll focus on how they’re different to Arctic Char instead. This mainly comes down to where they live and what they look like.

Habitat

Char and Salmon share much of the same habitat, migrating between freshwater and saltwater in the northern reaches of North America, Russia, and Europe. The main difference is that Arctic Char are, well, Arctic. They live much further north, thriving well into the Arctic Circle where most Salmon species couldn’t survive.

The best places to fish for Salmon are Alaska, the west coast of Canada, and the Great Lakes. All these places are home to Pacific Salmon species like Chinook. Sadly, Atlantic Salmon are endangered in the wild, although you can find them in Quebec and Scandinavia. 

Want to target Char? You can pretty much go anywhere that’s cold enough. Northern Canada, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, and Russia are all great.

Looks

A photo of three Arctic Char at different stages of their spawning run.
These are all Arctic Char, so how are you supposed to recognize them?

Arctic Char are seriously beautiful fish. When they’re in the sea, they have a bright silvery hue that lights up in the sun and shines through the water. As they migrate upstream to spawn, their backs darken and their bellies turn deep red or bright orange. 

The problem is that the same can be said of Salmon. They’re silver most of the year and morph into a variety of weird and wonderful monsters when they spawn. So, how do you tell them apart?

The main ways to identify a Char are its spots and stripes. All Char species have light spots on their sides (usually pink or white, but sometimes bright red when they’re spawning). Salmon, on the other hand, will have dark spots if they have any at all. Another dead giveaway is that Char have a creamy white edging on their fins, which Salmon don’t.

Arctic Char vs. Salmon as Food

Anglers love talking about fish in terms of looks, habitat, and fighting spirit. For most people, though, the biggest question is, “Are they good to eat?” The answer is a resounding “Yes” for both fish, but they do taste different. 

Taste

Pieces of grilled Salmon being turned with metal tongs

Arctic Char is a delicious, mild fish that sits somewhere between Trout and Salmon, leaning toward Trout. It’s quite fatty, which makes it easy to cook, as it won’t go dry or tough unless you really overdo it. Char also has a very delicate skin that crisps up beautifully.

How does it compare to Salmon? Depends on the Salmon. If you know your fish, Char has about the same amount of fat as Sockeye – more than Atlantic Salmon, but less than Chinook. It also has slightly less protein than Chinook or Atlantic Salmon. It’s still rich in omega-3, though, making it a health food as well as a delicacy.

The real bonus with Char is that it’s cheap. This means that you can buy better quality fish for a lot less money than premium wild-caught Salmon would cost you.

Sustainability

An aerial view of an open-water Salmon farm in Norway

This is where Char really shines. We’ve covered seafood sustainability in much more detail elsewhere if you’re interested. For now, let’s just say that both fish are usually farm-raised, but because Char can live in freshwater long-term, it’s much easier and more sustainable to farm.

Not all Salmon is farmed, mind you. Wild-caught Pacific Salmon arguably has even better eco credentials. However, it’s only available at certain times of year and is significantly more expensive, so it’s not always an option. Of course, the most sustainable (and fun) way to eat fish is to go out and catch it yourself!

Salmon and Char: Similar, but Not the Same

Salmon and Char are similar in many ways. They’re both predatory cold-water fish that taste great and look downright bizarre when they’re about to mate. Salmon have stolen the limelight, and most people have never heard of their northern cousins. However, Char are well worth trying and definitely worth catching.

What do you prefer, Salmon or Char? Have you caught either of them before? Drop us your stories, questions, and recipes in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!

Comments (13)
  • George Harvey

    Jun 10, 2021

    I am a Farm to table Chef and I love Char! It pairs well with lighter floral sauces due to less oil. My second favorite fish that is in the bass family is Branzino. All of my fish are seasonal due to the fact I buy direct from wild caught fishermen. It stops the fishery conglomerate and gives the small business a chance to thrive. Great article.

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      Lisa

      Jun 10, 2021

      Hi George,

      Lisa here. Thank you for reading. I’m really glad you liked Albert’s article. It’s amazing that you support small businesses as well as sustainable fishing.

      I need to mention that I also love Branzino and would always order it whenever I go to Italy. It’s delicious!

      Hope you’re having a great day,

      Lisa

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  • Cindy Skiffington

    Feb 28, 2021

    Hi there. I found this site as I Googled ‘Arctic Char’. I bought some Char at our local Farmers Market here in Thunder Bay. I love to prepare and eat salmon, trout and char. Originally from Vancouver, I grew up sailing, boating and fishing the waters of Juan de Fuca and Howe Sound with my dad. Mostly for Coho and Spring. Then I moved to Powell River on the Sunshine Coast where I would be lucky to get salmon from neighbours and friends. I loved to fish. But my ex-husband did not. So, sadly, I have never gone fishing again. I have lived in the Soo, where my neighbour would give me salmon. (Lake Superior). Then moved to Kapuskasing, where pickerel, pike and trout are the fish you eat. Now I am in Thunder Bay. I can buy salmon at the market. (Lake Superior again…chinook/spring I believe) If I am lucky…will get pickerel, white fish or lake trout from friends and co workers.
    Rainbow trout is probably my favourite fish to eat. Followed by wild coho, fresh pickerel and Arctic char.
    Thank you for the lesson about the similarities between salmon and char.

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      Albert

      Mar 1, 2021

      Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m glad you liked the article.

      I’ll be honest, I’ve never tried Pickerel. Couldn’t agree more about Rainbow Trout and Char, though.

      All the best!

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      Glenn R White

      Jun 1, 2021

      I have lot’s of cousins in Powell River. My most enjoyable fishing has been off of Powell River with them. My cousin Phil Jantz used to manage the Powell River Salmon Society hatchery. When did you live there?

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  • Estelle

    Feb 15, 2021

    Arctic char is much tastier than salmon and a lot more expensive here in Canada than salmon (talking wild in both cases). Chinook, sockeye (the best) and coho. Atlantic salmon is just plain gross. jmo.

    Farm fishing is evil and should be halted. BC has just started to close down salmon farm fisheries. Again jmo.

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      Albert

      Feb 17, 2021

      Hi Estelle,

      Fish farming definitely causes a lot of problems, you’re right – especially for large predatory fish like Salmon. Farming can be really good for shellfish and small freshwater fish like Tilapia, though. We covered this in more detail in our article on sustainable fish, if you’re interested.

      It’s interesting that Char is more expensive in Canada. I guess it’s partly a case of Salmon being cheaper there than in most places?

      All the best!

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      Glenn White

      Jun 1, 2021

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      Iva

      Jun 2, 2021

      Hey Glenn,

      The article you shared is really interesting and informative. PRV and other diseases are definitely major pitfalls of farming.

      I’d recommend checking out the same article on sustainable fish that Albert recommended to Estelle. Might be an interesting read for you!

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  • Marina

    Jan 28, 2021

    Hi, Albert! I liked your article. At least somebody is talking not only about Salmon!
    I am from Russia and we never say salmon fish, there are so many name of the fish what comes from salmon family, as! family, not just one type itself.
    Unfortunately, I don’t know all of them in English(actually, never thought about it, but we were very surprised first time in Canada to here everything is just Salmon).
    My husband likes to fishing, and here in Ontario we have salmon, trout, , brown trout and you could find Atlantic salmon, but you couldn’t caught it. In the store we bough one time wild salmon (again!), it;s looks like we called gorbusha, in Russia.
    If my comment is interesting for you, write for me what you would like to know and I will try to help.
    Thanks for your article.
    Marina

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      Albert

      Jan 29, 2021

      Hi Marina,

      Thanks for getting in touch. That’s really interesting that you have different names for (what we call) all the varieties of Salmon. It makes sense I guess – Russia has some incredible fishing for them!

      All the best!

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  • Linda Marie Centineo

    Nov 12, 2020

    very informative. learning much about different types of fish

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      Albert

      Nov 13, 2020

      Hi Linda,

      I’m glad you liked it. If you feel like diving deeper down the rabbit hole of Salmonids, check out our Trout vs. Salmon article next.

      All the best!

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