Alaska Salmon-ology: Sound like an expert!

Image courtesy Valdez Kids Pink Salmon Derby, 2011

Image courtesy Valdez Kids Pink Salmon Derby, 2011

by Bryan Bearss

There’s not much that says summer in Alaska more than fishing, and chances are, if you’re fishing in Alaska, you’ll be looking for salmon. From June to September, people flock to Alaska’s rivers, streams, and saltwater hotspots in the hopes of catching a big, beautiful salmon. Most Alaska families take at least a week or two each summer to fish for salmon, sometimes with a fishing rod and reel, but other times with a big net.

Did you know there are five different species of salmon to catch, and that each one arrives to spawn (release eggs and sperm) at a different time? Depending upon when you visit Alaska, one of the five (or more) will be swimming to the stream or river of their birth, and this is when anglers (fishermen and women, and kids), toss lines or nets.


Image courtesy

Image courtesy

It may seem impossible to remember five different kinds of salmon, especially when they all look alike (to most visitors), but here’s an easy way:


Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Hold out your hand, as if you were saying “STOP”: Starting with your thumb and working toward your pinky finger, each digit represents a different type of salmon.

THUMB rhymes with the first salmon, the “Chum” (Oncorhynchus keta). The chum is sometimes known as the dog salmon due to their canine-like teeth that become prominent during spawn. This salmon is also known for having a very distinct hooked snout along with red and green “tiger-stripes.” Chum salmon are also often fed to sled dogs due to their lower quality as an edible form of salmon (but are still pretty darned good).

If you’re not careful with your next finger, the INDEX, you could poke someone in the eye like a “Sockeye” (Oncorhynchus nerka). Otherwise known as a red salmon, during spawn their heads stay green and the rest of their body turns a deep red. Many restaurants love to serve the Sockeye salmon due to its rich, red-orange flesh, and smoked it is delicious.

Your next finger, yes, the MIDDLE FINGER-  is the biggest of them all, just like this next salmon, the “Chinook”, or king (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). These guys can be huge; the record king salmon was 4’10” and 126 lbs, which happens to be larger than most 5th graders! Chinooks are full of healthy fats, and have a buttery-soft texture that is primo for eating. They are hard to find, though, and often the Department of Fish and Game restricts the number of Chinook salmon one person can catch to preserve the run for the following year.

This fourth finger, the RING, is popular for jewelry, some prefer gold, but when it comes to salmon, silver is what to wear. The silver salmon, or “Coho” (Oncorhynchus kisutch) is prized by sports fishermen as spectacular fighters, and with their leaps in the air they are considered to be the most acrobatic of all salmon. New to salmon fishing? Try silvers; they put on a quite a show as they twirl on the end of the line and kids are guaranteed a good battle worthy of Facebook or Instagram.

Finally we come to the PINKY, sharing a name and a bit of size with the “Pink” (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha). The pink salmon is the smallest of all the salmon species, but also the species harvested in the greatest numbers every year. During spawn the pink can very easily be identified by a large hump on their backs, giving them their other name the humpback, or humpy (ever wonder where the Anchorage restaurant Humpy’s got its name?…Now you know!). Pink salmon also have a light, delicate flesh that isn’t as bright as the other salmon, and its mild flavor actually might appeal to kids who say they don’t like fish.


The Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage is a great place to view spawning salmon up close. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

The William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage is a great place to view spawning salmon up close. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Watching Alaska salmon

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is a great steward of salmon and the sport of fishing. They make it easy to get started with their fishing rod loaner program. ADF&G can also provide your family with spots to fish with easy access for kids. Try the Five Salmon Family Challenge Program and see if you can catch each of the five types of Alaska salmon this year.

If you’d rather just watch salmon without fishing, a two-hour drive from Anchorage will land you in Seward where your family can explore the tanks of salmon (and other creatures) at the Alaska Sealife Center. While in Seward you might even consider a walk around the Small Boat Harbor docks to see catches from the fishing charters being unloaded and cleaned. Many of the catches will include salmon, and this is a chance for you to test your Identification skills!

Along the way to Seward at mile 95 (Moose Pass) is the Trail Lake Hatchery. The facility is open from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. and there are tours daily from 10 a.m.–2 p.m.

A hatchery option in Anchorage is the William Jack Hernandez Hatchery, located at 941 N. Reeve Blvd. on the corner of Reeve Blvd. and Post Road. Visitors are welcome 7 days a week between 8:00am–4:00pm. Adult salmon of all species are commonly seen from the footpath along Ship Creek in July and August, and access from downtown Anchorage is easy.

If you happen to be shopping for outdoor adventure or fishing gear, the Anchorage Cabelas store also boasts a beautiful display of salmon swimming in a tank mimicking their natural river habitat.

Alaska kids, during the school year you may also be able to watch the salmon lifecyle. Check with your local school to see if they are one of the many host schools for the Alaska Fish and Game incubation tanks.

For a bit of salmon-themed rainy day fun, try a salmon coloring book!

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