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Guide and Tips to Identification of Salmon and Steelhead in the Ocean

There are a number of species of salmonids that may be encountered in the ocean off Oregon. The two primary species that are most commonly encountered in our commercial and recreational fisheries are Chinook Salmon and Coho Salmon. Others that may be encountered include steelhead (Rainbow Trout), Chum Salmon, Pink Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, and Cutthroat Trout. It is important for both commercial salmon trollers and recreational anglers to be able to correctly identify the fish that they encounter in order to stay within catch limits and only retain fish that are legal within the applicable commercial or recreational season.

 

Do's and don't's for salmon identification:

  • DO use the gumline and teeth 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 carefully release any salmon if you are unable to make a positive identification and the fish may be prohibited.
  • DON'T rely on body color or spots as a primary feature 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 have been observed in the 25-30 pound range.

 

Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

  • Lower jaw: Jaw will be uniform or mottled in color and predominantly black from outside the teeth through the gumline to the inside of the jaw line. The teeth will be sharp and firmly set in the jaw.
  • Spotting on tail and body: Typically large irregular shaped spots will be visible along the back. Roundish spots are commonly visible throughout the tail.
  • Link to Chinook Salmon ID graphic (jpg)

 

Chinook lower jaw diagram Chinook lower jaw photo

Chinook mottled lower jaw photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

  • Lower jaw: Jaw will display a distinct banding pattern with a black or gray band on the outside of the base of the teeth to a white or much lighter gray at the base of the teeth, to a black or gray band on the inside of the jaw line. The teeth will be sharp and firmly set in the jaw.
  • Spotting on tail and body: Coho will have small round spots on the back (they get larger as the fish starts to move towards there spawning run), but these spots are often very difficult to see in ocean caught fish. Roundish spots may be visible in the upper half of the tail.
  • Link to Coho Salmon ID graphic (jpg)

 

Coho lower jaw diagramCoho lower jaw photoCoho lower jaw close-up photo

 

Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)

  • Lower jaw: Jaw will display a distinct banding pattern with white or pinkish coloration both outside and inside of the base of the teeth. The gumline at the base of the teeth will be black or gray. The teeth will often not be visible until close to the start of the return to spawning. The teeth are typically loosely set in the jaw while Chum Salmon are in the ocean.
  • Spotting on tail and body: No spots will be found on a Chum Salmon.
  • Other hints: Chum Salmon caught in the ocean off Oregon are almost always larger than 10 lbs.
  • Link to Chum Salmon ID graphic (jpg)

Chum lower jaw diagramChum lower jaw photo

 

 

 

Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)

  • Lower jaw: Jaw coloration can vary substantially, but will be dark both inside and outside the teeth. Some Pink Salmon have been observed with lighter coloration at the base of the teeth similar to a Coho Salmon. The teeth will be dull and loosely set in the jaw.
  • Spotting on tail and body: Typically large spots will be visible along the back. Oval shaped spots will be visible throughout the tail.
  • Other hints: The Pink Salmon off Oregon are most commonly encountered in odd numbered years. The tails of Pink Salmon will be translucent, the flesh is soft, the small scales are very loosely attached, and they often have a blueish hue to their body when caught in the ocean.
  • Link to Pink Salmon ID graphic (jpg)

Pink lower jaw diagramPink Salmon lower jaw photoPink Salmon tail spotting photo

 

 

 

Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

  • Lower jaw: Jaw will display a distinct banding pattern with a black or gray band on the outside of the base of the teeth to a white or much lighter gray at the base of the teeth, to a black or gray band on the inside of the jaw line (just like a Coho Salmon). Teeth will generally not be exposed in Sockeye Salmon caught in the ocean.
  • Spotting on tail and body: No spots will be found on a Sockeye Salmon.
  • Link to Sockeye Salmon ID graphic (jpg)

 

Rainbow Trout (steelhead) (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

  • Lower jaw: The entire inside of the mouth will be white including at the base of the teeth. The teeth will be sharp and firmly set in the jaw, but no teeth will be present on the back of the tongue.
  • Spotting on tail and body: Roundish spotting may be visible along the back. Roundish spots will be visible and numerous throughout the tail.
  • Other hints: The tail will be very squared off with only a minimal fork.
  • Link to Steelhead ID graphic (jpg)

 

Steelhead lower jaw diagram

 

 

Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii)

  • Lower jaw: The entire inside of the mouth will be white including at the base of the teeth. The teeth will be sharp and firmly set in the jaw, and there will be a set of teeth on the back of the tongue.
  • Spotting on tail and body: Roundish spotting may be visible along the back. Roundish spots will be visible and numerous throughout the tail.
  • Other hints: The tail will be very squared off with only a minimal fork.
  • Link to Cutthroat Trout ID graphic (jpg)

 

 

Guide to Common Marine Fish Species off Oregon Including an ID Key to Salmonids

 

 

 

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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