Salmon fishing is one of those quintessential Alaska activities. In fact, a yearly average of 120,000 sport anglers catch close to a million salmon in Southeast Alaska each year. Considering the fact that you can find five different species of Pacific salmon in the state, Alaska is practically the perfect destination for any angler.
Whether you want to enjoy the sport or the spoils, check out our guide to the five types of Pacific salmon you’ll find in Alaska. We’ll include some fun stats to get your competitive blood boiling, as well as cooking notes so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. (Or the fruits of your local fish counter!)
We’ll also show you an easy mnemonic to help you remember the five varieties of Alaska salmon with ease as you regale your friends with the fish stories you picked up while chasing Alaska salmon.
5 Facts About Pacific Salmon
1. Chum salmon in the Yukon River in Alaska can migrate more than 2,000 miles to reach their spawning ground.
2. When salmon are swimming upstream, they can leap up to six feet in the air.
3. By eating phytoplankton and krill, sockeye salmon change their color from shimmery blue to vibrant orange-red to attract a mate just before spawning.
4. 90% of all U.S.-caught wild salmon comes from Alaska.
5. On average, a resident of Southeast Alaska’s rural communities uses 75 pounds of salmon per year. That’s a lot, especially when you consider that the average American consumes less than 15 pounds of seafood per year.
Variety #1: King Salmon / Chinook Salmon
Peak Fishing Time – May-July
Average Weight – 20-25 lbs.
Record Weight (Rod & Reel) – 97.3 lbs.
In addition to being the Alaska state fish, there are a number of other reasons behind the Chinook salmon’s royal nickname. First and foremost, king salmon are the largest variety of salmon. They often use their sheer size to defeat anglers—and they’re known to put up quite a fight!
However, Chinook are well worth the effort, since they’re highly prized for their delicate flavor profile, which is largely due to their high fat content. Chinook salmon also play a key role in subsistence and personal fishing in Alaska, to the tune of 167,000 fish harvested annually within these categories.
Keep the preparation simple to let king salmon’s natural flavor shine through. Brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill. Top with fresh parsley or dill and a squeeze of lemon to finish.
Variety #2: Sockeye Salmon / Red Salmon
Peak Fishing Time – May-Aug.
Average Weight – 4-15 lbs.
Record Weight (Rod & Reel) – 15.3 lbs.
In the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska, you’ll find the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. Naturally, Bristol Bay is also home to the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery, where about 46% of the world’s sockeye is harvested. Anywhere from 10-30 million salmon are caught in the area in a matter of weeks. (!) For all these reasons, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game calls sockeye the “most economically important species of salmon in Alaska.”
Because sockeye is a bit more affordable than king salmon, it’s one of the more common varieties of salmon you’ll see behind the fish counter. While many relish sockeye’s distinctive flavor, a few may find it a bit fishy. If that’s the case, seek out some coho salmon, which has a more neutral taste.
Although its fat content is lower than that of king salmon, and filets can be thinner, sockeye salmon still offers a full flavor and firm texture. Like king salmon, a simple preparation will allow sockeye’s natural taste profile to shine through. Consider seasoning with salt and pepper, then roasting in the oven. Because sockeye fillets can be thin, be careful not to overcook! As soon as the internal temperature reaches 120°, remove from the oven.
Serve with a simple herb butter: Mince fresh parsley or dill, mix with softened, room temperature butter, then place on a piece of wax paper. Roll into a log shape and chill in the refrigerator. Once the salmon is ready, cut slabs of the cold butter and place on top of the hot salmon to melt.
Variety #3: Coho Salmon / Silver Salmon
Peak Fishing Time – July-Aug.
Average Weight – 8-12 lbs.
Record Weight (Rod & Reel) – 33.3 lbs.
Coho salmon, also called silver salmon, are popular sport fish known to put up a pretty good fight. That said, they’re also a pretty popular commercial fish, with nearly 27 million pounds of coho salmon harvested by U.S. fisheries in 2019. (95% of which came from Alaska!)
Coho salmon is what you’d call a mild fish, in that it has a less distinct flavor than king and sockeye salmon. In other words, it can be a great fish for people who might be sensitive to “fishy” seafood.
Because the flavor of coho salmon is more dialed down, you can dial up your preparation. Consider serving coho salmon with a sauce, such as a pesto or a hollandaise. You might also consider using coho within another dish. Toss with fettucine in a lemon-garlic cream sauce or fold it into a savory salmon pie.
Like sockeye, coho salmon can get dry when overcooked, so keep a close eye on the temperature during your preparation.
Variety #4: Pink Salmon / Humpy Salmon
Peak Fishing Time – July-Aug.
Average Weight – 3-5.5 lbs.
Record Weight – 14.8 lbs.
If you haven’t seen pink salmon in your fishmonger’s case, it’s because you’re looking in the wrong section of the grocery store. Pink salmon—also known as humpy salmon for the humpback they develop during spawning runs—are most often found in the canned goods aisle.
However, plenty of pink salmon are caught and eaten in Alaska. They’re best when they’re very fresh. Pink salmon are also one of the easier varieties to reel in, so they’re perfect for kids who are developing their skills.
Pink salmon spawn exactly two years after they’re born. As a result, populations spawned in even years are essentially unrelated to those spawned in odd years. In fact, through DNA studies, scientists discovered that odd-year pink salmon separated by thousands of miles (Norton Sound, Alaska vs. Hokkaido, Japan) are more closely related genetically than odd-year and even-year pink salmon spawned in the same area.
Commercial seafood operations most often turn pink salmon into canned salmon or add it into prepared foods. If you’ve got a can or a pouch of pink salmon, turn it into a savory salmon dip. (Think: capers and cream cheese or dill, lemon, and horseradish.) If you’ve got a filet of fresh pink salmon, consider pan-frying it in some olive oil and garlic.
Variety #5: Chum Salmon / Dog Salmon
Peak Fishing Time – July-Aug.
Average Weight – 8-15 lbs.
Record Weight – 35.0 lbs.
Chum salmon play an important role in the diets of those who live in arctic, northwestern, and Interior Alaska. The fish is traditionally dried in order to provide food during the long, cold Alaskan winter months.
In Alaska, chum salmon are commonly known as “dog salmon,” although the exact origin of the name is in dispute. Some claim it came about as a result of the large, thick teeth these fish grow, which are substantial enough to resemble canine teeth. Others claim the nickname has origins in the fact that chum salmon were often fed to sled dogs.
No matter the origin of their nickname, these salmon offer some tasty eating options. Their roe is often used in sushi. Because chum is one of the leaner varieties of salmon, consider using it as the centerpiece for a creamy salmon chowder.
What’s the Best Way to Remember the 5 Types of Alaska Salmon?
Now that you’ve got a good run-down of what makes each of the five types of Alaska salmon distinct, what’s the easiest way to rattle them off like a pro?
We’ll share an easy mnemonic device that’s common in Alaska, and all you need is your hand. Hold it out in front of you, and follow along:
- Your thumb rhymes with chum.
- Take your pointer finger and point at your eye. That should prompt you to think of the sockeye.
- Next, your middle finger is often the largest on your hand. That should remind you of king salmon.
- Look at your ring finger. What kind of metals are used in rings? Gold and silver.
- Last, you’ve got your pinky finger, which will remind you of pink salmon.
Pretty simple, right?!
Salmon Fishing Is Just the Start
Alaska offers some of the best salmon fishing in the world—but that’s just the beginning of the outdoor adventures you’ll find in Alaska. Whether you’re headed to the Last Frontier for a few days or for good, there’s plenty to keep you busy. Hiking, skiing, hunting, camping, kayaking, backpacking: You’ll find it all in Alaska.
Planning a move to Alaska? We’d be happy to help you get your belongings anywhere in the state. Just reach out to one of our experts for a complimentary quote to get started.
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