Salmon is a diverse family of fish species found in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Nearly all types of salmon are migratory fish. They are born in freshwater streams, then move to the ocean to feed and grow, and then return to the stream to spawn and die.
Popular for both commercial and sport fishing, salmon are highly adaptable and prolific fish. This makes it easier to maintain stable populations despite the popularity of salmon fishing. Not all subspecies are impermeable to distress from climate change, predation, and fishing practices.
Luckily there are several governmental agencies committed to managing salmon populations and promoting responsible fishing practices. Fishers of all stripes can enjoy fishing for six types of salmon in two different oceans; here’s what you need to know.
Different Salmon Types
- Chinook Salmon
- Coho Salmon
- Sockeye Salmon
- Pink Salmon
- Atlantic Salmon
Also known as the “King Salmon,” Chinook is the largest salmon species and the most valuable commercial fish.
The average Chinook is about three feet long and thirty pounds in weight, but they can grow much larger. The largest Chinook Salmon to date was 4.9 feet long and 129 pounds.
Their large size and high-fat content make them a delectable dining fish that serves a crowd. As such, Chinook Salmon are most commonly commercially fished. Sport fishermen, after a Chinook, need to be prepared for the potential size and be adequately prepared with substantially-sized equipment.
Chinook Salmon are named after the indigenous people, the Chinook, who subsisted on these fish for thousands of years before explorers came to North America. Chinook Salmon are the largest Pacific Salmon that are commonly in the Pacific Northwest between Northern California and Alaska.
Chinook Salmon are large and have a varying color with blue-green hues on the dorsal side and silver on the sides. Their bellies are typically white. They may have black spots on the upper half of the body or upper lobe of the tail fin.
But the most distinctive feature of the Chinook Salmon (other than its fantastic size) is the dark gum line that earns them the nickname “blackmouth.”
In freshwater, Chinook Salmon, who is about to spawn, will darken in color and appear olive-brown, dark red, or purple instead of silver. The juveniles in freshwater have parr marks, which make for useful camouflage. These marks are a pattern of lines or spots that disappear as the fish becomes older and moves to the ocean habitat.
Coho Salmon is a smaller Pacific salmon that is a widely popular sport fish in the Pacific Northwest.
Sometimes called “silver salmon,” they are modestly sized with an average weight of 8-12 pounds. Some Coho can grow up to thirty pounds on the largest end of the range, but most are much smaller.
Although numbers vary by year and condition, most Coho populations are healthy and prolific. There are only one subspecies currently on the endangered list.
Like other salmon, their populations are affected by ocean and climates like warming waters and melting snowpack. Dam construction and urban development also negatively impact their populations as they use streams to spawn.
Their modest size and abundance make them a popular sport fish choice. And, although they are smaller in size and leaner in fat than the Chinook Salmon, ocean-caught Coho still makes a pretty tasty meal.
The best time to catch Coho Salmon is in saltwater from July through early September.
Like the coloring on Chinook Salmon, they have dark metallic backs, silversides, and light bellies.
The gum line is lighter in pigment than the black mouthed Chinook, but they darken during spawning the same way. One feature that is distinctive to a spawning Coho Salmon is a hooked snout and large teeth.
Sockeye Salmon is another Pacific ocean species of salmon found off the western United States and most prevalent in Alaska.
Sockeye is one of the smaller salmon averaging 1-2 feet in length and 4-15 pounds. At their largest, they are just half the size of the average King Salmon.
Ocean-dwelling Sockeye Salmon is also known as “bluefish” because of its blue dorsal coloring, iridescent sides, and white ventral side. Spawning Sockeye in freshwater turns red and earns the nickname “Red Salmon” or “Redfish.”
Most Sockeye Salmon are anadromous, meaning that they are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to feed and grow, and then return to freshwater to spawn and die. Specific subspecies like Kokanee are non-anadromous.
Sockeye is common in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, rarely traveling south of the Deschutes River in Oregon. Sockeye populations are strong and abundant in Alaska’s Pacific waters, although they do face heavy predation from marine mammals and larger fish.
Sockeye Salmon, or “Reds,” are popular for fly fishing in Pacific Northwest streams and rivers. Despite their smaller size, reds are an aggressive salmon species and put up a fight when caught. Many anglers are surprised at how acrobatic these fish are, but they jump out of the water, trying to escape their fate.
Pink Salmon are the smallest Pacific salmon, topping out at five pounds and not more than two feet in length.
Pink salmon look distinctively different than most other Pacific salmon species.
While it is common for ocean-dwelling salmon to be silver or iridescent with blue-green backs, pink salmon are more green on the backs with large dark spots on the dorsal side. They have silver-pink coloring on the sides and an iridescent white belly.
Males develop a hump on their back, which earns them the nickname “humpback.” All pink salmon are anadromous, migratory fish that move between freshwater and saltwater at different life stages.
Juvenile pink salmon migrate to marine waters immediately after birth, while other salmon species spend more time in freshwater environments before making a move.
Pink salmon are the fastest-growing Pacific salmon species. They migrate to the ocean almost immediately after hatching and spend about 1 1/2 years feeding and growing before returning to freshwater to spawn. Females will protect their nests until they die following spawning. The average lifespan of a pink salmon is two years.
Pink salmon are an important commercial fish, often canned or added to processed seafood.
This variety of salmon is small and has a lower oil content than more valuable salmon species, but still takes a large share of the market for commercial fishing with an average of 100 million caught annually since 1990.
Pinks peaked in popularity for sport fishing between 1996—2006. While they are not as coveted as their larger relatives, pink salmon are great for youth because of their small size. They also have a mild flavor and good texture, which makes them appealing as an eating fish.
Chum salmon are one of the larger varieties of Pacific salmon. They average 8-15 pounds, but some grow as large as 30-35 pounds and up to three and a half feet in length.
Chum salmon are anadromous like most other salmon species, but they do not stay in freshwater for prolonged periods.
Young chum migrate directly to marine waters and spend most of their life feeding and growing in the ocean. Chum salmon return to freshwater to spawn between three and six years of age, completing their life cycle.
Ocean-dwelling Chum is metallic green-blue with black speckles on the dorsal side with typical greyish-silver coloring that becomes lighter as it extends to the ventral belly side. Chum salmon are also known as Keta Salmon, Dog Salmon, or Chub.
Chum are pretty easy to catch using traditional river fishing methods. Both rod and reel and fly fishing work well to attract Chum.
If you are specifically targeting chum in rivers, bottom-bouncing, where you allow your bait to bounce along the bottom of the riverbed, is very effective. However, be prepared that these fish are larger—certainly full grown if they are in freshwater—and inclined to put up a fight.
In saltwater fishing, chum is more commonly a bait than the target. Chum salmon produce large roe (eggs), which makes a good bait for salmon fishing. Chum salmon is the least desirable food fish. If you find it at the grocery store, it will be in fillets labeled “Keta Salmon.”
Of the six main salmon species, only one is native to the Atlantic ocean and named a bit on-the-nose as the Atlantic Salmon, but may also be called sea-run salmon or black salmon.
Unlike most Pacific salmon species, Atlantic salmon are largely overfished, and populations remain at risk.
Atlantic salmon have a long body that is broad in the middle and tapered on the ends. Like other salmon, this species has a greyish metallic color that is darker on top and almost white on the bottom. Spawning adults darken in color, turning first to bronze color and then black after spawning, which earns them the nickname “black salmon.”
Females lay an average of 7,500 eggs, nearly twice as many as most salmon species. The colder Atlantic waters reduce viability, with less than 20% of those eggs surviving. One of the biggest differences between Atlantic Salmon and other species is that they do not die after spawning. They live to repeat the cycle for an average life span of 4-6 years.
There are three subspecies of Atlantic Salmon: North American, European, and Baltic. Historically, the North American variety of Atlantic Salmon was once native to almost every river north of the Hudson. They are now limited only to Maine as their populations struggle to survive overfishing, predation, and environmental factors.
Since 2015, a new program focuses on protecting at least eight species of Atlantic Salmon that remain on the endangered list. Some of the efforts include improving habitats by removing or modifying dams and supplementing natural populations with hatchery-raised fish.
The Atlantic Salmon that is available commercially for food is farm-raised due to the struggling natural populations. Farm-raised salmon is typically fattier than wild-caught salmon, which adds to the calorie content and strong flavor. The skin is particularly tasty!
Sportfishing for Atlantic Salmon is limited to availability. There may be restrictions imposed on some species, so unlike Pacific salmon, anglers need to do a little research before heading out. The best place to fish for Atlantic Salmon is at the mouth of a river.
These salmon congregate here before heading upstream to spawn. Once they are upstream, Atlantic Salmon do not feed, so attracting their attention with bait is difficult—if not impossible. But you may be able to entice them with one last meal before they go.
Background on the Salmon Species
Salmon are a family of anadromous fish, primarily native to the Pacific Northwest regions of the United States and Canada. This means that they are born in freshwater streams and move to the ocean to mature.
Once they reach reproductive age, they return to their freshwater origins to spawn and die. There are a few exceptions to this life cycle.
For example, Atlantic Salmon do not die after spawning and repeat the process for one or two more years. There is also one subspecies of Sockeye that is non-anadromous. Nearly all salmon species also experience significant color and pattern changes as they move from freshwater habitats to saltwater and back to freshwater.
These changes earn them several different nicknames depending on the species, including redfish, black salmon, black mouths, and silver salmon.
The Great Lakes region of the United States also can fish for salmon thanks to the introduction of managed populations of both Pacific and Atlantic salmon. Atlantic salmon most often misidentified in the Great Lakes region, mistaken for Chinook or brown trout.
Atlantic Salmon are long and tapered and have significant modeling (black speckles) on the dorsal side. While Chinook (King) Salmon also has black speckles, the Chinook will have black gums.
Coho Salmon is also commonly found in the Great Lakes thanks to conservation efforts to establish this region’s species. Coho has white gums but may have a black tongue.
Sport Fishing for Salmon
Many types of salmon make popular sport fish from saltwater anglers to fly fishers in a gentle river. Coho Salmon are the most popular Pacific sport fish among saltwater anglers.
They have a smaller size than the Chinook, making them easier to handle, but they are equally desirable for food quality salmon.
Pink salmon are the most popular sport fish for youth anglers due to their small size and less-aggressive nature. Sockeye is the most aggressive and is popular among anglers looking for a thrilling catch as they put up a fight on the hook.
Of the six main types of salmon, five are native to the Pacific Ocean. One of the six is native to the Atlantic ocean, and three out of the six are adaptable to landlocked freshwater habitats like lakes and reservoirs.
Salmon range in size from as little as 3 pounds to as large as 130 pounds. While coloring and markings may vary from one species to another, all salmon share some common characteristics. Plus, it’s very easy to confuse a salmon for their distant cousin, the steelhead trout.
A darker top (dorsal) side helps them blend in with the ocean, protecting them from predators above like birds.
A lighter belly (ventral) side helps them blend in with the light in the sky above the ocean, protecting them from predators below like sharks and whales. And a metallic silver coloring on the sides gives them the best chance of appearing translucent in ocean waters.
As the salmon transition into freshwater for spawning, their coloring changes to camouflage in their new habitats. Some species turn rust or red color while others turn almost black.
The best place to fish for salmon depends largely on the type of salmon and region. Saltwater fishing for King or Coho Salmon is popular off the coast of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Fly fishing in rivers and streams is popular for salmon types throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Some also fly fish for Atlantic Salmon in Maine. Rod and reel river fishing is popular for all types of salmon as well.
Some salmon species are aggressive, and some are just plain large, so the chances are that you need to invest in medium to heavyweight equipment when targeting these fish.
Pacific salmon are largely unregulated as their populations remain abundant and healthy. Atlantic Salmon as they have many more species on the endangered list than their Pacific relatives.