Over the past several weeks, I’ve been writing about Pacific salmon, so this week, I want to pause a minute and review. In their marine phase, the five species of Pacific salmon are hard to tell apart. Their life cycles are similar, and sometimes all five species spawn in the same river/lake system. What are their differences, and how do you tell one species from another?
Perhaps you are thinking, why should I care if I can differentiate between salmon species? Let’s pretend you are fishing in Alaska on a river where all five Pacific salmon species are present. It is legal to keep pink salmon, chums, and cohos, but you must release sockeyes and kings. You catch a beautiful, silvery salmon. You know right away it hasn’t been in fresh water long enough for its color and body shape to change. You also know if it is still silver in color, its flesh will be firm, and it will be good to eat. Is this one of the species you can keep, or must you release this fish?
The size of the fish is a clue, but often, different year classes of a species return to the same river, so size is not definitive. Does the fish have spots, and if so, where and how big? Spots are more visible when a salmon gains its spawning coloration, but if you look closely, the spots are visible in the silvery marine phase. Pink salmon have large, oval spots on the back and both lobes of the tail. Cohos have small black spots on the back and the upper lobe of the tail. Kings have spots on the back and both lobes of the tail. Sockeyes and chums have no spots on their backs or tails.
While you are looking at the tail, do you see any silver streaks? Cohos and kings have silver streaks radiating along the rays of the tail. Chums also have silver streaks but only on half the tail.
The mouth is another distinguishing characteristic. King salmon have a black mouth with a black gum line and a black tongue. Pinks also have a black gum line, but they have a white mouth. The other three species all have white mouths and white gum lines.
A chum salmon has a white tip on the anal fin, an important characteristic to note when trying to differentiate a chum from a sockeye.
Other distinguishing characteristics you can use include the size of the eye, scale size, and the shape of the tail, but none of these are easy to employ unless you are comparing one salmon to another.
Take a look at the salmon you caught. It weighs about four pounds and has spots on the back and both lobes of the tail. You think you see silver streaks in the tail, but you’re not certain, so you check the mouth and note a black gum line and a black mouth. You are allowed to keep the fish if it is a pink, chum, or silver salmon, but you must release it if it is sockeye or king. Will you be able to grill this salmon for dinner, or should you carefully release it back into the stream?
The size of the fish, and the spots on the back and both lobes of the tail may lead you to jump to the conclusion you caught a pink salmon, and you can keep it. Only pinks and kings have spots on both lobes of the tail, so you can quickly rule out the other three species. The silver streaks in the tail may be hard to see, so you wisely check the mouth. Both pinks and kings have black gum lines, but only king salmon have a black mouth, including a black tongue. Take a closer look at the fish. Are the spots small or are they large and oval? If you said small, you have your answer. You caught a small, probably a mature 3-year-old king salmon, and you must release it.
It takes practice to identify a silvery Pacific salmon in its marine phase. Commercial fishermen can quickly differentiate one species from another, but if you only occasionally fish for salmon, one silver salmon looks much like the next. If you can’t identify the salmon you caught, you must release it, so if you plan to go salmon fishing in Alaska without a guide, you should do your homework first.
Next week, I’ll write about some of the questions we are commonly asked about salmon, and I will do my best to answer them.
I am excited to announce the webinar I told you about last week explaining how I became an Alaska wilderness mystery writer and where I get some of my ideas for my novels, has now been released. To see the webinar, follow this link: http://bit.ly/2pcCOo6. I used many of Mike’s photos and my friend, Ryan Augustine’s photos and videos in the webinar, so I think you will enjoy it. Please share the webinar link with your friends and family. If you stay until the end, you can get a free e-book of one of my novels. The purpose of the webinar is to introduce myself and my books to a wider audience, so the more you share this link, the happier I will be! Thank you!
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