In the Field

How to Identify the Five Species of Alaska Salmon

How to Identify Alaska Salmon Species

Many folks who come to Alaska to enjoy world-class salmon fishing sometimes have a little difficulty telling the different species of salmon apart from each other. Even seasoned fisherman who have been at it for decades, often have to look twice to make sure they’re about to put the right fish on the stringer or in the box. After all, when salmon are caught out in the ocean or have just made their way into a river, some of them do look very similar. Some of them are about the same in size and have a very similar shape. They’re all bright silver with darker colored backs before they start to spawn. And many of them also have spots. I’ve done many different videos on Alaska salmon fishing which you can check out at the Wild Revelation YouTube Channel, but what follows below is a general overview of all five species, and most importantly, their distinguishing characteristics.

King/Chinook Salmon

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Mature king salmon are typically around 36 inches in length and weigh in at 20 – 30 pounds, but they can get much larger, with the world record sport caught king salmon tipping the scale at 97 pounds.

Kings have a bright silver body with a blueish-gray colored back and they have small, irregular shaped black spots on their back, dorsal fin, and usually on both the upper and lower portion of their tail. One of the distinct features of the king salmon is their black mouth AND black gums at the base of their teeth on the lower jaw. Smaller, younger king salmon are very easily confused with silver salmon, so the black mouth and especially the black gum is what to pay special attention to.

king salmon mouth and gums

Spawning king salmon darken in color quite dramatically and turn into a dark olive-brown and/or maroon color.

 

Silver/Coho Salmon

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Adult silver salmon usually weigh 8 to 12 pounds and are 24 to 30 inches long, but individuals weighing 31 pounds have been landed.

Again, it’s very common for people to confuse a young king salmon with a silver salmon, as both look very similar when they’re fresh. True to their name, silvers have beautiful, dime bright coloration with a greenish-blue back…which can look very similar to the blueish-gray back of a king. Silver salmon also have similar looking spots on their back, dorsal fin, and tail. However, the spots on silvers are more uniform in appearance and are usually only on the upper section of the tail, instead of both the upper and lower as on a king. Again, the telltale feature to look for is the mouth coloration. Silvers have a black mouth like the kings, but their gums at the base of the teeth are white on the lower jaw…not black like on kings.

silver coho salmon mouth

Spawning silvers likewise look rather similar to kings, in that they turn dark brown and maroon in color with large kipe or jaw development in the males. However, their heads appear more green than the kings.

 

Sockeye/Red Salmon

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Sockeye salmon are a relatively small, but prolific species of Pacific salmon, measuring 18 to 31 inches in length and weighing 4 to 15 pounds

Sockeye salmon are super easy to recognize when they’re in their spawning phase, as they have a slightly humped back and a deep, brilliant scarlet-colored body with green head…hence the name “red” salmon. However, when they’re fresh in from the ocean and still bright and silvery, they can sometimes be confused with large, fresh pink salmon or even small chum salmon. The sockeye’s distinguishing characteristics include a dark blue to even blueish-black colored back with no distinct spots on the back, dorsal fin, or tail.

Pink/Humpy Salmon

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Pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, weighing in between 3.5 and 5 pounds, with an average length of 20-25 inches.

Before the pink salmon undergoes its spawning metamorphosis, it has a bright silver body with a greenish back and large dark spots all over the back and tailfin. Pinks also have very small scales as compared to other species of salmon.

When they begin to spawn, male pinks develop the signature large hump on their back and a pronounced kipe. Their backs and the upper portion of their bodies turn a dark greenish-gray and the lower portion of their body turns white.

Chum/Dog Salmon

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Chums are 24-28 inches long and weigh 10-13lb on average, with the males usually being much larger than females.

Like the other species of Pacific salmon, chums are bright silver while out in the ocean and when fresh in a river. They have a gray back and slight yellowish-green coloration on the sides which is sometimes hardly noticeable. Chums don’t have any distinct spots and they also have very large eye pupils that cover almost the entire eye.

Chums are the fastest of the five Pacific salmon species to change into their spawning colors. They quickly turn from bright silver into a wild, dinosaur-looking coloration with a calico-like pattern of yellow, green, and maroon. The males also develop enormous canine teeth…which you can make a cool necklace out of! There’s generally no mistaking a chum salmon for anything else, as they have a very unique look.

So there you have it my friends! That’s an overview of how to identify the five species of Pacific salmon that inhabit the cool clean waters of Alaska! Check out the video below to see more…

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