By John Larson

Rather than write a story about one of my past hunting or fishing trips, I thought I would do a little research on one of my favorite subjects.  Here it is and I hope you enjoy.  There are five species of Pacific salmon in North America and two additional species that can only be found in Asia. The five North American species are Chinook (king), coho (silver), chum (dog, calico), sockeye (red) and pink (humpy). Those that can only be found in Asia are masu and amago.

The five species of Pacific salmon belong to the family salmonidae. They spawn and spend early portions of their lives in fresh water and then migrate to open ocean to mature. This life pattern is known as anadromy.  Pacific salmon are a critical component of ecosystems throughout their range. Salmon spawn only once in their lifetime.  After spawning they die. This may seem like a dismal reality, but the thousands of salmon carcasses that blanket streambeds and forest floors during the spawning season are key to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Salmon carcasses provide nutrients for the forest as their bodies decay and decompose into the soil. They provide food for many different plants and animals.

A nice 25 lb king salmon in Alaska.

Alaska King Salmon (Chinook) have a blue/gray back with silvery sides with small irregular shaped spots on back, dorsal fin and usually on both lobes of their tail. The gum line is black. Spawning adults take on a maroon to olive color.  Alaska king salmon is the largest species of Pacific salmon. The present Alaska state sport fishing record is 97.25 lbs taken on the Kenai River. In fact, of the top 10 king salmon record holders, nine of these fish were taken in the Kenai River.  King salmon spend from 2-5 years in the ocean, so their size in a run varies a lot.  The State of Alaska average for this salmon is about 20 lbs, however Kenai king salmon are typically in the 50 lb range. No other salmon draws as much attention as the king salmon, which is the official State of Alaska fish.

Like all species of Pacific salmon, Chinook salmon are anadromous. They hatch in fresh water, spend part of their life in the ocean and then spawn in fresh water.  All Chinook die after spawning. Chinook salmon may become sexually mature from their second through seventh year and as a result, fish in any spawning run may vary greatly in size.  For example, a mature 3-year-old will probably weigh less than four pounds, while a mature 7-year-old may exceed 50 pounds. Females tend to be older than males at maturity. In many spawning runs, males outnumber females in all but the 6- and 7-year age groups. Small Chinook that mature after spending only one winter in the ocean are commonly referred to as “jacks” and are usually males.  Alaska streams normally receive a single run of Chinook salmon in the period from May through July.

Chinook salmon often make extensive freshwater spawning migrations to reach their home streams on some of the larger river systems. Yukon River spawners bound for the extreme headwaters in Yukon Territory, Canada, will travel more than 2,000 river miles during a 60-day period.  Chinook salmon do not feed during the freshwater spawning migration, so their condition deteriorates gradually during the spawning run as they use stored body materials for energy and for the development of reproductive products.

Each female deposits from 3,000 to 14,000 eggs in several gravel nests or redds, which she excavates in relatively deep, moving water.  In Alaska, the eggs usually hatch in late winter or early spring, depending on time of spawning and water temperature.  The newly hatched fish, called alevins, live in the gravel for several weeks until they gradually absorb the food in the attached yolk sac. These juveniles, called fry, wiggle up through the gravel by early spring.  In Alaska, most juvenile Chinook salmon remain in fresh water until the following spring when they migrate to the ocean in their second year of life. These seaward migrants are called smolts.

Juvenile Chinook in fresh water feed on plankton, then later eat insects.  In the ocean, they eat a variety of organisms including herring, pilchard, sandlance, squid and crustaceans.  Salmon grow rapidly in the ocean and often double their weight during a single summer season.

The Chum Salmon is perhaps best distinguished from its cousins by the calico markings you find on the sides during the spawning phase of this salmon.  Both sexes develop a “tiger stripe” pattern of bold red and black stripes after they enter fresh water.  Ocean-stage chum salmon are metallic greenish-blue along the back with black speckles.   Chum or “Dog” salmon are perhaps the most underappreciated of the five Pacific salmon species.   With their aggressive nature, it makes it worth targeting them for a day on the water.  Find yourself a good chum stream and I guarantee you will walk away feeling satisfied about your fishing day, along with having a sore shoulder from the fights these brutes put up.

Chum Salmon are a hardy fish that can be found nearly everywhere in Alaska’s fresh and saltwater.  They’ve been nicknamed “dog salmon” because of their age-old use as a subsistence food for both Native Alaskans and their sled dog teams.  Chums are easily caught and are often an unexpected byproduct of fishing for other species

Sockeye Salmon (Reds, Red Salmon) have a dark blue/black back with silvery sides with no distinct spots on their back, dorsal fin or tail.  Spawning adults develop dull green heads and red bodies. Red salmon or sockeye are one of the most numerous species of salmon to populate streams and rivers in the Kenai Peninsula and Copper River Basin and many will swear that for eating, no salmon tops the Alaska red salmon. The red salmon is by far the State of Alaska’s most valuable commercial salmon species. The sockeye salmon is a plankton feeder which is unlike the other Alaska salmon species and they are very passive toward lures, flies or bait.   This salmon generally spends 2-3 years in the ocean before it returns to its spawning waterways in large schools.  The driving force that brings the sockeye salmon to migrate to its spawning bed is legendary.  You need only watch them leap waterfalls and speed through fast currents to see the force and will to survive that the red salmon possesses. Pound for pound, the sockeye is the strongest and most demanding sport fish in Alaska. The State of Alaska sport fishing record for this salmon is about  16 pounds.

A pile of silver salmon.

Alaska Coho (Silver) Salmon have greenish/blue back with silvery sides. Small black spots appear on the back, dorsal fin and usually on the upper lobe of the tail. The gum line is white to light gray.  Spawning adults develop greenish black heads and dark brown to maroon bodies.  The Alaska silver salmon or coho has been called the greatest Alaska sport fish.  The State of Alaska sport fishing record is 26 pounds.  The general weight range on the Kenai River and Kenai Peninsula stream systems run from 9-24 pounds.  The coho certainly has an important place in Alaska subsistence and commercial fisheries. The life cycle of the silver salmon is similar to that of the Alaska king salmon.  Coho salmon will stay in the freshwater for a year or two before migrating to the saltwater where they will spend at least two years swimming the Kenai coastal waters or in the Gulf of Alaska.  Even as young smolt in freshwater, the Alaska silver salmon is a voracious and aggressive eater and are even known to eat each other. These aggressive tendencies are their undoing as a sport fish.  Beginning in late July, Alaska silver salmon will begin to congregate in bays and near mouths of their spawning streams and rivers as they wait for nature to optimize water temperature and stream flow before they continue migration to their freshwater spawning grounds.

The Pink Salmon is known as the “humpback” or “humpy” because of its distorted, extremely humpbacked appearance, which is caused by the very pronounced, laterally flattened hump which develops on the backs of adult males before spawning.  This appears between the head and the dorsal fin and develops by the time the male enters the spawning stream, in addition to a hooked upper jaw or kype.   An important commercial catch, the pink salmon is the smallest North American member of the Pacific salmon group of the salmonidae family.  In many Alaskan coastal fishing communities, it is considered a “bread and butter” fish because of its commercial significance to fisheries and thus to local economies.  The flesh is pinkish, rather than red or white and it is mostly sold canned but also utilized fresh, smoked and frozen.   Its eggs are also valued for caviar, especially in Japan.  The flesh is of most value when the fish is still an open water inhabitant, as it deteriorates rapidly once the fish enter rivers, in Alaska.  As far as sport fishing goes, not too many people set out for pinks.  They are mostly a byproduct of fishing for another species, like silvers, whose runs coincide in most places.  But believe me, if you are looking for the opportunity to catch big numbers of fish in the 4 to 10 pound range, these strong fish are a great target with fly rods, especially on the even numbered years throughout Alaska.

I hope this article is as informative for you as it was for me while putting it together.  Whether catching them or eating them, Alaskan salmon are tops on my list and I can’t wait to get back up there and do it all again!