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Marine Sport Fish Identification Key - Ocean Salmon

six species of pacific salmon

The ocean phase of six different species of Pacific salmon.
From top to bottom: chinook, chum, coho, sockeye, pink, and steelhead.

The two most commonly caught species of salmon in the ocean hook and line fisheries off Oregon are coho and chinook salmon. Pink salmon are intercepted to a much lesser degree, and are most prevalent off Oregon in years ending in an odd number (i.e. '95, '97, '99, '01, etc.). Chum salmon and steelhead trout are occasionally intercepted as well. Sockeye salmon are rarely caught by Oregon ocean fishers.

Fishing regulations require anglers and commercial fishers to correctly identify salmon species as legal lengths, seasons, and other restrictions often vary based on the species. Anglers who incorrectly identify their catch, may have their fish confiscated, and receive a costly citation as well. It is highly recommended that fishers take the time to review fish identification materials that are available, including the information on this page.

Do's and Don'ts for Ocean Salmon i.d.

DO use the gumline on the LOWER jaw for identifying a salmon. It is the single best feature to use. It is also the characteristic that is most likely to be used by enforcement officers in deciding whether a violation has occurred and if a citation should be issued.

DO review the identification materials provided on this web page, and keep a copy of this or another ocean salmon identification guide with you while fishing.

DO carefully release any salmon if you are unable to make a positive identification and the fish may be a prohibited species.

DON'T rely on body color or spots to identify a salmon caught in the ocean. Salmon in the ocean phase of their life cycle will not show the colors that are common after they enter the estuaries and rivers. All ocean salmon are primarily silver in color, and there can be wide variations in spots and color both within and between species.

DON'T use the presence or absence of a hooked nose as an identifying characteristic. A hooked nose is a common secondary sexual characteristic of male salmon as they approach maturity, and is present in all species.

DON'T use the size of a salmon to determine the species. Although the chinook grows to be the largest of our salmon, with fish over 50 pounds being caught on occasion, the average size of an ocean caught chinook is 12-15 pounds. On the other hand coho, chum, and steelhead have been observed in the 25-30 pound range.

Coho Salmon "Silver" (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

  • The coloration on the lower jaw exhibits a distinct banding pattern. Outside the base of the teeth there is a dark band, at the base of the teeth is a white or very light band, and inside of the base of the teeth is another dark band.

  • Bone segments in the fin rays of the tail can be felt by lightly running a finger nail along the top of the fin ray.

  • Teeth are sharp and firmly set in the jaw.

  • Tail may or may not have "round" spots in the upper lobe. Occasionally, coho will have spots in both lobes of the tail.

  • "Small" spots may or may not be present on the back.
Coho Jawcoho lower jaw coho salmon lower jaw
Lower jaw of coho salmon. Note the distinct banding pattern of dark to light to dark.

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Chinook Salmon "King" (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

  • The lower jaw is a uniform dark coloration (in some cases may be mottled).

  • Bone segments in the fin rays of the tail CANNOT be felt by lightly running a finger nail along the top of a fin ray.

  • Teeth are sharp and firmly set in the jaw.

  • Tail may or may not have "round" spots in both the upper and lower lobe.

  • "Large" wavy spots are usually present on the back


  • Chinook lower jaw mottled Chinook lower jaw Chinook head displaying lower jaw
    Diagram and two photos showing coloration of lower jaw of chinook salmon.
    Note that the coloration at the base of the teeth is consistent with the area inside and outside i.e. no distinct banding coloration although colors can vary substantially.

Pink Salmon "Humpie" (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)

The lower jaw is a uniform dark coloration (in some cases may be mottled).Teeth are dull and are loosely set in the jaw.

Tail is translucent, with large oval spots throughout.

pink salmon lower jaw pink salmon lower jaw pink salmon tail
Lower jaw of pink salmon and pink salmon tail displaying the large oval spots. Note that there is more variation in the color of the pink salmon gumline than in other salmon species. Generally, the gumline is most similar to the chinook's, however pink salmon will have dull and loosely set teeth while the chinook will have sharp firmly set teeth.


chum salmon lower jaw chum salmon lower jaw
Lower jaw of a chum salmon. Note banding pattern of light to dark to light, the opposite of what is seen in coho.

Chum Salmon "Dog" (Oncorhynchus keta)

Coloration on the lower jaw exhibits a distinct banding pattern. Outside the base of the teeth it is light, at the base of the teeth it is dark, and inside of the base of the teeth it is light again.Tail has no spots.

Diameter of the pupil of the eye is large.

 

 

 

 

 

steelhead lower jaw

Diagram of lower jaw of a steelhead. Note the entire gum and inside of mouth is white.

Steelhead/Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

Lower jaw and inside of the mouth is all white. Tail is squared off, and has small round spots throughout.


 

 

 

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Contact:

Eric Schindler
E-mail: Eric.D.Schindler@state.or.us
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
2040 SE Marine Science Drive
Newport, Oregon 97365
(541) 867-4741

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