Know Your Fish - Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Ocean Phase Identification Characteristics:

  • Typical silvery sides common to all Pacific salmon
  • Metallic green blue on the back and top of the head
  • White or silvery belly
  • Some fine black speckling may occur on the back, but large spots are absent
  • Almost toothless
    Spawning Phase Identification Characteristics:

  • Males, back and sides are bright red to dirty red-gray, head is bright to olive green, tail is green to black
  • Females, colors not as bright, but red above lateral line
  • Males develop a large dorsal hump
  • Males develop typical hooked snout and large canine-like teeth
    Identification Characteristics:

  • In spawning males, back and sides are bright red to dirty red-gray, head is bright to olive green, tail is green to black
  • Spawning males have a large dorsal hump
  • In spawning females, colors not as bright, but red above lateral line
  • NO distinct spots on back or tail fin

  • Range in length from 20 to 28 inches
  • Freshwater record: 10.62 lbs, Gary Krasselt, Lake Washington, King Co., 7/20/82
  • Saltwater record: no state record (yet!)
    Sockeye, also called "reds", are one of the most unique of the Pacific Salmon in that they require a lake for part of their lifecycle. When they are young, they spend anywhere from a few months to a couple of years in their lake. Sockeye can sometimes be found spawning on the shores of the same lake where they spent their younger years. They almost always spawn in a body of water that is somehow connected to a lake, be it a stream or the lake shore itself.

    In the spring sockeye fingerlings leave their lake rearing areas and migrate downstream to the ocean. They travel quickly thousands of miles to the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific where they feed voraciously. In their third year in the ocean they begin sexual development, and between this time and their sixth year they begin their journey back to their natal rivers. Mature four-year-old sockeye average about 5 pounds and the older fish can reach weights in excess of 10 pounds.

    Sockeye are considered by many to be the best-eating of all salmon, but anglers catch relatively few of them on hook-and-line. They are also historically one of the most commercially valuable fish because of their high oil content and their ability to hold their red color in the can. The state's most notable sport fishery on sockeyes occurs in Lake Wenatchee and some years in Lake Washington. A fishery on Fraser River stocks is growing in the San Juan Islands.

    Sockeye salmon are sleek and silvery with a blue-black color on the top of the head and silvery white jaws. Sockeye salmon turn a bright red on their body and olive-green on the head as they begin to enter the spawning phase of their life cycle. Like the pink salmon, males develop a prominent hump in front of the dorsal fin. Also the male's snout becomes elongated and canine-like teeth grow out of the receding gums. The females undergo a similar distinct color change but retain their sleek body shape.

    For more information about Washington State's game fish you can download these PDF files: Pacific salmon identification (1446KB), trout and salmon identification (560KB), and selected game fish (2553KB). To read these files you will need the free Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader that you can obtain from Adobe's PDF Reader web page.

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