An Introduction to Salmon Species

Types of Salmon Fish

The five main species of Pacific salmon are: chinook, coho, chum, humpback and sockeye. We’ll address several other species of salmon as well that are sometimes not even considered salmon but are part of the salmon family.

Pink salmon

Pink salmon

Humpbacks or pink salmon have the species name oncorhynchus gorbuscha. They are sometimes called humpies for short. These are the smallest species of salmon. They develop a characteristic hump back during their mating phase. They live two years, meaning that if an even year was a bumper year for them, the next even year will see a similar peak. They spawn in estuaries or the lower portions of a river. Their relatively low fat content, the lowest of the five main salmon species, means they are often canned versus eaten as salmon filets.

Sockeye salmon, also called the red salmon or blue back, has the species name oncorhynchus nerka. Their sockeye name isn’t related to a physical characteristic but the First Nation word, sukkai, that means fish. They have the darkest flesh of any salmon species. They are mostly plankton eaters. They can spend up to several years in fresh water. Sockeye salmon have the most diverse life history pattern of any major salmon species. They can spawn at the bottom of lakes, near the shoreline and make the migration several hundred kilometers upstream. Their body turns scarlet during the spawning phase, hence the “red” name. The landlocked sockeye salmon populations trapped inland, spawning in large lakes instead of the see, are called

Kokanee Salmon.


Coho or silver salmon have the species name oncorhynchus kisutch. They are the next to least abundant salmon in the Pacific Northwest, though they are in high demand by sport fishermen. They are relatively rare today due to overfishing. Coho salmon spend a year or two in fresh water before migrating to the ocean, so you may catch young ones by mistake when fresh water fishing. They move into small headwater streams before they start migrating.

King Salmon

King salmon


Chinook or king salmon are the largest salmon species in the Pacific Northwest. Chinook salmon have the species name oncorhynchus tshawytscha. They are also called the tyee salmon or blackmouth salmon. Chinook salmon are the least abundant salmon species. The males develop a hocked snout that makes proper hook selection critical when fishing for them. They have blue green backs, silver sides and irregular spotting. The biggest distinguishing factor aside from size is their black gum line. They can live up to seven years. They spawn in large rivers or streams.

Chum salmon is another word for dog salmon, referring to their relative undesirability compared to other species and canine like teeth. Chum salmon are also known as keta salmon after the Asian name for the species. The name chum, though, comes from a Native American word, not an insinuation that only fools would eat them – they actually taste pretty good, even compared to other species that have been farm raised Atlantic salmon. This means that even if you catch a dog salmon on a salmon fishing charter, you’re still in for a great dinner.

Chum Salmon


Chum salmon spawn low in river systems before migrating to the sea soon after they hatch. They have a lower fat content than larger salmon species, but they taste very good after being smoked.They are the most widely distributed salmon species, so if you’re salmon fishing, there is a good chance you’ve caught one. They are the second largest salmon species. Males develop vertical bars on their bodies in the spawning phase while females develop a black horizontal stripe. Most of these salmon reproduce near the mouth of a stream, perfect for fly fishermen who want to work in an estuary or river mouth instead of hiking up along a stream to reach where the salmon are spawning.

Steelhead trout, also known as the silver trout, salmon trout, steelie and coastal rainbow trout, are a prized trophy game fish. Its species name is oncorhynchus mykis, though it used to be called salmo gairdneri. They are unusual for salmon in that they can spawn multiple times, though few return by the fourth year. This trait, though, means they have both winter and summer runs. They can even mature in fresh water without ever visiting the sea, at which point they are called rainbow trout. They have blue backs, silvery sides, and black spots on their back and fins. When spawning, they are darker. You can distinguish them from the coastal cutthroat by the red dash on the lower jaw that this species lacks.




The cutthroat, species name salmo clarki clarki, is called the sea run cutthroat trout, red throated trout, coastal cutthroat trout and sea trout. This species is a mixed bag. Two types of this fish spend their lives in freshwater, hence the trout designation. And one is anadromous, going out to sea before returning to fresh water to spawn. They can live up to six years, and those making their fourth and fifth year runs are the largest.

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