Species of Pacific BC Salmon

What makes Pacific BC salmon different from Atlantic salmon? When fishing for BC salmon, how do you tell a Chinook salmon from a Coho?

What follows is a quick rundown of Pacific salmon basics.  The article focuses on life cycles of the various Pacific BC salmon species and how to tell them apart when fishing, both in the ocean and spawning phase of their lives.


BC Salmon Fishing Chinook Salmon

BC salmon fishing for Chinook salmon


What a Pacific Salmon Is Not . . . 


Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar)

We start with the obvious: a Pacific BC salmon is not an Atlantic salmon. Atlantic salmon are classified in an entirely different genus (genus Salmo) than Pacific salmon (genus Oncorhynchus).  And of course, the Atlantic salmon is native to the northern Atlantic ocean.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans calls Atlantic salmon in BC waters a “non-native” species. In Alaska they go a step further and call them “invasive”.  I like that better. No matter what you call it, there’s not much good about Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean.

Atlantics are identifiable by the following characteristics: black spots on the gill cover, small x or y-shaped spots above the lateral line, no spots on the tail (usually — there have been reports of Atlantic salmon caught in Alaskan waters with spotted tails), an upper jaw not extending past the rear of the eye, a slender base of the tail, and an anal fin with 8-12 rays.

Atlantic salmon

If you encounter an Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean, it’s there because of human introduction. In other words, it’s an escapee from a fish farm. Which is a whole different article.  Regardless, if you do catch one of these when fishing in BC waters, the proper procedure is observe, whack and report.

In their native habitat, Atlantic salmon begin their life in a river system, spending two to four years there and then migrating to the ocean. They’re in the ocean for another year, and often more, before returning to their natal river to spawn.

An Atlantic salmon may also return to the ocean after spawning, and potentially repeat the spawning cycle. This is not the case with Pacific salmon — all species of Pacific BC salmon die after spawning.

Both Atlantic and Pacific salmon are “anadromous” fish — they spend their adulthood in the sea and migrate back to freshwater to spawn.


The Five Species of Pacific Salmon

There is only one species of Atlantic salmon.  However, there are five species of Pacific salmon common to British Columbia waters: Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, Sockeye salmon, Chum salmon, and Pink salmon.

Sometimes Steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) and even cutthroat trout are characterized as salmon, being part of the same genus Oncorynchus. There’s also a Cherry or Masou salmon (Onchorynchus masou) found in the northern Pacific Ocean along east Asia.

However, we’re going to focus on the five species traditionally viewed as salmon in our local BC waters.


Spring Chinook Salmon

Chinook salmon, Campbell River

Chinook Salmon (Oncorhyncus tshawytscha)

Chinooks are also known as King salmon or Spring salmon. And Smileys. They are the largest of the Pacific BC salmon, capable of attaining weights over 100 pounds. Far more common is a weight between 10 and 30 pounds.  Thirty plus pounders are known locally as “tyees”.

Because of their size and ability to fight, BC sport fishers hold the Chinook salmon in high regard.

Once hatched, a juvenile Chinook salmon will spend between two and 12 months in freshwater, depending whether it is an “ocean-type” or a “stream-type”. They then can live five or more years in the ocean (but typically three or four) before returning to spawn, migrating as far as the Alaskan Peninsula and Bering Sea. Plenty of time to feed and grow.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of a Chinook salmon is its black gums and mouth.  The teeth are also noticeable.  Chinook have spots on their backs and both lobes of the tail, and a long anal fin.  Although they have a greenish back and silver sides in the ocean stage of their lives, they can also take on a slight purplish hue in the right light.

Interestingly, the flesh of a Chinook can be pinkish-red or it may be a pale white or “marbled” colour with just a hint of pink tones. This difference is due to a genetic ability or inability to metabolize pigments in their food (e.g., krill and shrimp). Luck of the draw . . . but while they may look different, they taste the same. Some even consider the white flesh more flavourful.

Fat Chinook Salmon

Chinook showing purplish hues

Coho Salmon (Oncorhyncus kisutch)

Coho salmon spend the first one to two years of their life in the river system. They return to spawn after one to three years in the ocean. Coho usually come in somewhere between seven and 11 pounds, though it’s not uncommon later in the season to catch Coho salmon weighing in the mid to high teens.  These larger Coho salmon are sometimes referred to, rightly or wrongly, as “Northerns”.


Bright Coho Salmon

Coho salmon, ocean phase

Typically smaller than Chinook, Coho salmon are also distinguishable by their white gums. They have spots on the upper part of the body and also on the upper lobe of the tail. The tail base is wide, and the tail itself is somewhat squared off.

In the ocean, they can appear to have a blue-green back and silver sides – hence the other names by which Coho salmon are known: Bluebacks and Silvers.


Northern Coho Salmon Male

Coho salmon returning to freshwater

Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhyncus nerka)

Sockeye salmon are sought after as a food fish due to their relatively high oil content and flavour. They typically range between five and 10 pounds, but can grow larger.

The Sockeye life cycle consists of one to three years in freshwater followed by two to three years in the ocean. While there, Sockeye have silver sides with no spots on the back or tail. The tail is somewhat forked and the mouth and gums are white. Additionally, their eyes are relatively large and glassy.

Sockeye Ocean Phase

Sockeye, ocean phase

Chum Salmon (Oncorhyncus keta)

Chum salmon (also “Dog” salmon) can look similar to Sockeye in the ocean stage.  Chum also have white mouths and no spots on the body or tail. However, Chum salmon have noticeably larger teeth, and can display faint vertical bars on their sides. They also have a narrow tail base and a white tipped anal fin.  In contrast, a Sockeye will have a more blunt nose as well as a prominent eye.

As juveniles, Chum salmon are only one to three months in freshwater. They spend another two to four years in the ocean. Chum also grow larger than Sockeye, and it’s not uncommon to see Chum salmon weigh (in pounds) in the lower to mid teens.

Ocean Chum Salmon

Chum salmon, ocean phase (note faint vertical stripes)

Pink Salmon (Oncorhyncus gorbuscha)

Pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, with an average weight of about five pounds. Not surprisingly, they also have the shortest life cycle: they migrate to the ocean within the first two months after hatching and return two years later.  That said, they are a lively sport fish when fishing light tackle.

Pinks are distinguished not only by their size, but by their small scales, forked tail and large oval spots on the body and both lobes of the tail. Pink salmon are also known as “Humpies”, because the spawning male develops a large hump on its back.


Pink Salmon

Male Pink salmon, spawning phase


The Spawning Phase


Spawning Forms of Pacific Salmon

All Pacific BC salmon undergo marked physiological changes that accompany the body chemistry/hormonal change leading up to the spawn. These changes begin at some point in the latter phase of their migration, and become more pronounced as the salmon near and enter their home rivers.

Commonly, spawning male Pacific salmon will develop a large “kype”, or hooked jaw. The male Chum salmon’s teeth grow noticeably, one of the apparent reasons they are referred to as Dog Salmon.

All species of Pacific BC salmon undergo a change in colour as part of the spawning process. In general, darker colours replace the silvers of the ocean phase. Each individual species has its own peculiarities.

For example, the vertical body stripes of the Chum salmon become a vivid purple against a greenish background. The head of a spawning Sockeye salmon turns a dark green, while the body turns bright red. Coho salmon develop a deep reddish body. The body of a spawning Chinook salmon turns dark olive green to almost black in places.

Chinook Salmon River

Chinook salmon, freshwater


Sockeye spawning colours

Sockeye salmon, spawning colours


Chum salmon, freshwater


After the Spawn

All Pacific salmon are “semelparous”; that is, they spawn only once in their lifetime. After they have laid and fertilized their eggs and their spawning mission is complete, their bodies deteriorate further and they eventually die.

Pacific salmon are a huge part of the food web. They’re a food source for ocean predators (other fish, killer wales, sea lions, e.g.) as well as land-based predators (eagles, bears, otters, etc.).

Post-spawn, their decaying carcasses not only feed smaller organisms (insects, for example) but also return important nutrients to the land. All five species of Pacific BC salmon are vital components of the ecosystem.