Types of Salmon: The Complete Guide
Mar 12, 2021 | 8 minute read Comments
17
Reading Time: 8 minutes

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.

A school of Chinook Salmon, one of the six types of Salmon in North America, swimming upstream to spawn.

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.

A map of North America showing the different types of Salmon in their ocean and spawning colors. On the left, you have the five Pacific Salmon: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye. On the right, you have 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

A happy angler in a blue cap and a grey vest holding a Chinook Salmon on a fishing boat, with sea behind and land in the distance.

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

An angler in overalls and sunglasses holding a Chinook Salmon in its spawning form.

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

A man in a cap and sunglasses and a boy in a black sweater holding large Coho Salmon on a fishing charter. The sea is visible behind them, with land in the distance.

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

Three Coho Salmon laid on the ground. The fish are in their spawning colors, with a red body and a dark head and tail.

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

A grizzly bear about to eat a Sockeye Salmon that is jumping upstream on its way to spawn.

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

A sockeye salmon in its spawning colors, with a red body and a green head. The fish is being held by an angler in a black jacket, with a catch net in the bottom left.

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

A Pink Salmon, the smallest Salmon species in North America, laid on rocks next to a spin fishing rod.

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

An angler in green waders and a camo hat holding a fly fishing rod and a Pink Salmon. The Salmon is in its spawning form, with a grey back and cream belly, a distinctive humpback, and large nose and mouth.

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

Two anglers in rain jackets and waders posing with a Chum Salmon in a shallow stream. The man on the right has a fly fishing rod balanced over his back.

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

A Chum Salmon breaking the surface of the water in a shallow stream. The Salmon's green body and purple stripes show that it is getting ready to breed.

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

A happy fisherman in sunglasses, a black cap, and a red shirt holding an Atlantic Salmon. There are large rocks behind and a stream on the right.

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

An angler in a hat and jacket kneeling in a stream to release the Atlantic Salmon he is holding. The Salmon's bronze body and red spots show it is about to spawn.

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.

A Salmon species chart with pictures of all the types of Salmon in North America The fish are in their ocean-going form on the left and their spawning form on the right. The chart shows information on how to recognize each Salmon species. Chinook Salmon is at the top, with text reading "Black mouth, black gums." "Olive/maroon body." Coho Salmon is below, with text saying "Black mouth, white gums." "Maroon body, dark back." Next is Sockeye Salmon, the text reads "White mouth, white gums." "Red body, green head." Pink Salmon is underneath that, with writing saying "White mouth, black gums." "White belly, grey back." Chum Salmon comes next, with the text "White mouth, white gums." "green body, purple stripes." Finally, Atlantic Salmon is at the bottom, with the writing "Spots on gill plate" "Bronze body, red spots."
  • 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!

Rather be fishing?

Get great fishing tips, travel inspiration, and fun facts straight to your inbox, once a week, every week.
Invalid email address This email address is already subscribed

Something went wrong!

Unfortunately we can't subscribe you at this moment due to a system error. Please try again later.
Comments (17)
  • Alex Tjioe

    Dec 4, 2020

    Fantastic post, I am new to Salmon fishing and been fishing the last couple of years in BC, Canada, moved from So Cal which only trout and bass fishing, always wondering when I caught Salmon what kind they’re and your explanation very helpful and easy to understand.

    Starting to catch lots of Chum in Octobers and I totally agree with you, the meat is the worst, it’s oily. Coho so far my preference, caught coho reddish/maroon color and I wasn’t sure what kind of salmon that time, now I know that is late season coho, I wish I kept it and try to taste it if it’s still good or not.

    Hope to see you in BC one of this days. Keep up an excellent post buddy!

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Dec 7, 2020

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for the message. Really glad you found it helpful.

      Tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Allen Bishop

    Nov 3, 2020

    Great and helpful post. Now, we all need that same approach to the entire Salmonidae. Identification, flavor, where and when to find them, etc. The appeal of chasing remote and rare strains of alpine wilderness jewels. And talk about the differences between “char”, “grayling”, “whitefish” and the most confusing of all: “trout” vs. “Salmon”. Plus great photos of each. I would read such a book cover to cover. Three times, at least.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Nov 4, 2020

      Hi Allen,

      Glad you found it helpful. Salmonidae really are a confusing bunch sometimes!

      We’ve actually got another couple of articles in this series that might interest you. There’s one on the main types of Trout in North America. And yes, we even dared to cover Trout vs. Salmon. I feel like you’d need a whole book to explain all Salmonidae at once, though.

      Tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Charlie

    Oct 28, 2020

    I fished Prince William sound in June of 1985 and caught some salmon (15 fish on 15 casts), I never knew what kind they were. My son worked at a salmon hatchery on Prince William sound this summer. Thanks to his identification and your post, I’m pretty sure they were chums. I thought they fought and tasted pretty good.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Oct 28, 2020

      Hi Charlie,

      Sounds like quite a day! Chum get a bad rap but they’re still great fun to catch and pretty good eating – they are Salmon after all.

      All the best!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Ross Stephens

    Oct 20, 2020

    Super Helpful. I think I am going to use this as the main link in my science project. Thank You so much

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Oct 20, 2020

      Hi Ross,

      I’m glad you found it useful. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

      All the best!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Naimul Islam

    Aug 21, 2020

    Amazingly detailed yet easy to comprehend post. Being a South Asian, I had many questions and confusions regarding various Salmon species. This post answered all those. Thanks man!

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Aug 21, 2020

      Hi Naimul,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Are you an angler? What kind of fish do you usually target where you live?

      All the best!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Dru

      Oct 15, 2020

      Perfect post thnx bro!!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Oct 15, 2020

      Hi Dru,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m glad you found it helpful.

      Tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Naimul Islam

      Oct 30, 2020

      First of all, my apology for this late late reply, brother.

      I am not an angler. From where I come, Bangladesh, there are not so much exposure to fishing while you live in the city, and I am a city man since by birth.

      However, I find North American fishing culture fascinating. I have a major in American Literature, where I learned the original connection between nature and pioneer Americans. From this, a dream in me developed in that one day I will settle there and wander in Mountains and lakes, and fish.

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Nov 2, 2020

      Hi Naimul,

      It’s true, America does have one of the strongest fishing cultures of about any country out there. I hope you get to experience it one day.

      All the best!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Veronica

    Sep 30, 2019

    Extremely helpful.

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

    • Reply icon

      Albert

      Sep 30, 2019

      Hi Veronica,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m really glad you found it useful.

      Tight lines!

      Leave a reply
      NameRequired *
      Your comment Required *

  • Nino

    Jun 7, 2019

    Very nice post

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

  • Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *