Without a doubt, Salmon are North America’s favorite family of fish. Salmon fishing hotspots like Alaska and British Columbia are pilgrimage sites for sportfishing enthusiasts. Commercial fishing for many types of Salmon is big business. In fact, you could say that Salmon fishing helped make North America into the place it is today.
But here’s the thing: There’s more than one Salmon swimming about in these waters. Much, much more. If you can’t tell your Chinooks from your Cohos, or you just get confused by the different types of Salmon, don’t worry. We’ve put together a jargon-free guide to the continent’s Salmon species. You can find out what they are, what makes them unique, and how to tell them apart.
North American Salmon Species: The Basics
Before we jump into the details, it’s good to go over the basics. There are six types of Salmon in North America. Five come from the Pacific coast and are called Pacific Salmon. These are Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Pink, and Chum Salmon. The other one traditionally lives in the Atlantic and is simply called Atlantic Salmon.
Atlantic Salmon are actually more closely related to Brown Trout than other Salmon species. Even so, all Salmon have a few things in common. They’re strong predators that like cold water. They normally live in the sea, but they move into freshwater to spawn. When they do, they transform, changing color, even shape, to give them an upper hand.
Shape-shifting predators at large in our rivers and seas? Sounds like something out of a horror movie! Some Salmon species certainly look scary enough, but there’s nothing to fear except losing your favorite lure. Let’s meet the cast and find out what makes each one special.
Chinook Salmon: The King
Anglers often call these guys King Salmon and it’s easy to see why. Chinook Salmon are the biggest and heaviest of all the world’s Salmon, reaching 5 feet long and topping the scales at over 100 pounds. Because of this, they’re a bucket list catch for anglers all over the world.
As well as being the biggest, Chinook are the most widespread Salmon in North America. They show up all the way from the deep Pacific waters of southern California to the ice-cold rivers of northern Alaska. They have also been introduced into all five Great Lakes. Wherever they go, anglers follow by the hundreds.
Chinook Salmon Identification
The easiest way to recognize Chinook Salmon is by their mouths. Their gums and the entire inside of their mouths are black, hence the nickname “Blackmouth Salmon.” Don’t feel like getting that close to the business end of an apex predator? You can also check for small, round spots on both the upper and lower halves of their tails and across their backs.
In general, Salmon are much easier to tell apart when they’re spawning. When Chinook transform, their heads and mouths grow longer. Their bodies and tails turn olive brown or maroon. In fact, the only things that stay the same are their spots, which you can still see on their backs and tails.
Coho Salmon: The Fighter
Coho Salmon don’t grow quite as big as Chinooks, but they make up for it by fighting twice as hard. They have a reputation as the toughest and most hard-headed of Salmon species. They aren’t most people’s favorite fish, but this fighting spirit earns them second place in many anglers’ hearts. Maybe this is why they’re called “Silver Salmon.”
Coho don’t venture quite as far south as Chinook. You mainly start to see them in Oregon, and become more common once you hit Washington. They show up everywhere else you can find Chinook: the whole northern Pacific coast and all five Great Lakes.
Coho Salmon Identification
Like most Pacific Salmon, the easiest way to recognize Coho is by their mouths. They have black mouths like Chinook, but their gums are white. They also have spots along their backs, like Chinook, but they only have spots on the top half of their tails.
When they get ready to spawn, Coho become impossible to confuse with any other fish. They turn bright red or maroon, with a dark back, head, and tail. Males also grow a long, hooked nose called a “kype,” which is designed to latch onto and fight off other fish. This is how they earned the nickname “Hooknose Salmon.”
Sockeye Salmon: The Delicacy
Sockeye Salmon are the tastiest of all of North America’s Salmon species. Often called Red Salmon, they have a dark, fatty meat and are a favorite of glitzy restaurants and famous chefs all around the world. Not to mention hundreds of grizzly bears waiting eagerly for the annual river run.
Sockeye Salmon live from Washington up along the Western Seaboard to Alaska. They also live in all the Great Lakes except Superior. On top of that, landlocked “Kokanee Salmon” are stocked in lakes around the US and Canada.
Sockeye Salmon Identification
The key to identifying Sockeye is in their name. They have bright, golden eyes which are much bigger than on other types of Salmon. Open their mouths, and you’ll find a white inside with matching white gums. Finally, Sockeye Salmon don’t have spots on their backs or tails.
Spawning Sockeye Salmon have a similar hooked nose and jaw to Coho. Males also grow a bump on their back. You won’t need any of this to recognize them, though. Sockeye turn bright red when they spawn, with a contrasting green head and tail.
Pink Salmon: The Stayaway
Pink Salmon are the world’s smallest Salmon, averaging around 18 inches and maxing out at around 30 inches. Despite their size, they’re fun to catch and are considered one of the tastiest types of Pacific Salmon, behind Sockeye and Chinook.
Pink Salmon are unique in that they only show up every other year. In Washington and BC, they spawn on years that end in an odd number. On even years, they head up to Alaska instead. You really need to time your trip to catch these little guys – or head to the Great Lakes, where you can find them year in, year out.
Pink Salmon Identification
As you might have guessed, Pink Salmon have a slight pinkish tinge to their bodies. You can also identify them by the dark flecks on their bodies and large, oval spots on both halves of their tails. If all that fails, check their mouths. They should have a white inside with dark gums, the opposite of Coho.
All Salmon seem to go by two names. In this case, it’s Humpback Salmon. When Pinkies spawn, they grow a large hump on their backs, like an extreme version of Sockeye Salmon. They don’t go red like Sockeye, though. Instead, their top half turns a dull gray and their bottom half turns white or cream.
Chum Salmon: The Underdog
Chum Salmon are generally people’s least favorite member of the family. They don’t taste as good as other Salmon species. They don’t put up much of a fight. In fact, many anglers see Chum Salmon as more of a pest than a prize. They do have one thing going for them, though: Their roe is much bigger and tastier than usual. It’s often used to top sushi, even if their meat isn’t.
Chum Salmon have the same native range as most Pacific Salmon: They start to show up in the northwestern mainland US, and live all the way along Canada’s Pacific coast and up to the Gulf of Alaska. However, unlike other species, they were never introduced into the Great Lakes.
Chum Salmon Identification
Chum Salmon often get confused with Sockeye. They both have completely white mouths and no spots. Look carefully, though, and you should see subtle bands of color running down their body. Oh, and they also have much bigger teeth than other types of Salmon, hence the nickname “Dog Salmon.”
When they spawn, Chum Salmon are probably the most distinctive fish out there. They turn an eerie green with distinct purple stripes, like some strange, undead tiger. They also grow hooked mouths like Sockeye and Coho, which perfectly rounds off their nightmarish looks.
Atlantic Salmon: The Loner
Atlantic Salmon are a case apart from other species. For starters, they live on the other side of the continent. On top of that, they were fished to extinction in much of their range. Track one down, though, and you’re in for a treat. They grow almost as big as Chinook and put up as much of a fight as Coho.
You can theoretically catch Atlantic Salmon from Connecticut to Quebec and west into the Great Lakes. These days, Atlantic Salmon are a rare sight. Your best chances of catching them are in and around Lake Ontario, or in remote rivers along the Northeastern Atlantic coast.
Atlantic Salmon Identification
Theoretically, you shouldn’t have to worry about confusing Atlantic Salmon with other species. They live in a different ocean, after all. However, both types of Salmon have been introduced well outside of their natural waters, so they do overlap. The easiest way to spot them is by their spots. They have large dark spots on their gill covers, and x or y-shaped spots on their upper body.
Landlocked and spawning Atlantic Salmon look very different to their ocean-going versions. They turn a dark, bronzish brown, and may even develop red spots instead of their usual dark x-shaped ones. Because of this, they’re often mistaken for Brown Trout. The best giveaway is the dark spots on their gills, and the lack of spots on their lower half.
The Types of Salmon in North America: Summing Up
So, there are six types of Salmon in North America: five Pacific Salmon, one Atlantic Salmon. We won’t go back into the details of every fish, but let’s go over the signature things that set each species apart.
- Chinook Salmon is the biggest fish in the family. It has a black mouth with black gums. When it spawns, it turns olive-maroon with obvious spots all over its tail.
- Coho Salmon fights the hardest pound for pound. It has a black mouth with white gums. When it spawns, it grows a “kype” and turns maroon with a dark back.
- Sockeye Salmon is the tastiest of the bunch. It has a white mouth with white gums. When it spawns, it turns bright red with a dull-green head and tail.
- Pink Salmon only shows up every other year. It has a white mouth with black gums. When it spawns, it turns grey on top and white below. Males grow a humpback.
- Chum Salmon tastes the worst, but has the best roe. It has a white mouth with white gums. When it spawns, it turns green with purple stripes. Males grow big teeth.
- Atlantic Salmon is big and mean, but rare in the wild. It has x or y-shaped spots. When it spawns, it looks more like a Brown Trout than other Salmon species.
Every species of Salmon is special. Some fight hard, others taste great. Some aren’t good for either of those things, but they make up for it with outlandish looks. Hopefully, you’ll have an easier time identifying which fish you’re looking at next time you catch one. If nothing else, you can appreciate how awesome this entire family of fish really is.
What’s your favorite type of Salmon to catch? Which one do you think tastes best? Have you ever managed a Salmon Slam? Let us know your thoughts and stories in the comments below, we always love to hear from you!