If you are new to fishing or the Pacific Northwest, you may be wondering, what are the types of Pacific salmon? What are their behaviors? Where do Pacific salmon migrate to and from? All you need to know is answered below!

Pacific Salmon Habitats and Behaviors

As you may know, Pacific salmon begin their lives in freshwater lakes, rivers, and stream habitats, making them what is called anadromous (fish that travel up to a fresh water source like a river from the sea to spawn). Eventually, they migrate to the North Pacific Ocean to feed for several years. Pacific salmon are referred to as smolts when they reach the age of ocean migration. Pacific salmon can be found along the west coast of North America, stretching as far as Alaska to California. Popular freshwater habitats are found commonly around Alaska, Washington State, Oregon, and even Idaho.

Once salmon become smolts, they travel to saltwater before they spend one to seven years (depending on the type of Pacific salmon) maturing and then spawn. Pacific salmon migrate and travel in schools; with some research suggesting they make migration decisions as a group. And as a result of the demanding journey back to spawn, Pacific salmon die after spawning – fertilizing the growing grounds. A female salmon can lay as many as 2,500 to 7,000 eggs in what is called a redd (nest) which is a shallow depression in the stream bottom. The male salmon will come along and fertilize the eggs and protect the redd by pushing gravel over the eggs.

Types of Pacific Salmon

If you have lived in the Pacific Northwest for any time, you are likely familiar with the different types of salmon we see in this region. There are Chinook (King) salmon, Sockeye (Red) salmon, Coho (Silver) salmon, Pink (Humpback) salmon, and Chum (Dog) salmon. And If you have lived in the Pacific Northwest for any time, at the very least you are familiar with King and Silver salmon as you have likely seen it served in local restaurants.

Graphics below show wild salmon in their adult phase, before the kelt (spawning) phase. Wild salmon can be identified by the adipose fin (small fin near the tail). Hatchery fish will have the adipose fin clipped so that anglers and wildlife agents know which fish are wild and which are hatchery fish.

Chinook (King) Salmon

Chinook, also known as King salmon, usually resided along Alaska’s west coast. Commonly, they are blue-green on the back and top of the head, decorated with silvery sides and white underbellies bellies. The upper half and parts of the tail have black spots. In freshwater, their colors change, more predominately noticed in males.

Kings spawn in freshwater and migrate to the ocean and salt waters. They are the largest Pacific salmon and spend years feeding in the sea before spawning. According to NOAA, Chinook (King) salmon “can grow as long as 4.9 feet and up to 129 pounds, but typical length and weight of mature fish are about 3 feet and 30 pounds”.

The Chinook (King) salmon eats aquatic insects, amphipods, copepods, crustaceans, and bait fish. They live in North America and range from Monterrey Bay, a California area, to the Chukchi Sea area of Alaska (approximately 3500 mile span).

king salmon
Chinook (King) Salmon

Sockeye (Red) Salmon

Sockeye (Red) salmon look similar to King salmon but are smaller, lack black spots in fin and tail areas and lack the green back (and turn red with a green head when spawning). During spawning, males also develop a humped back and pronounced hooked jaw. They migrate to the ocean from freshwater approximately one to three years after hatching. Depending on their developmental stage, Sockeye eat zooplankton, amphipods, insects, larval, small fish, and squid occasionally.

Sockeye salmon live from northwest Alaska to Oregon’s Deschutes River. Not all Sockeye are anadromous, sometimes spending their whole life in freshwater.

Sockey (Red) Salmon
Sockey (Red) Salmon

Coho (Silver) Salmon

Coho (Silver) salmon have dark metallic blue or greenish backs, silversides, and lighter bellies. They feed on plankton, insects, and small fishes. Most spend the first year and a half of their lives feeding in the ocean before spawning behavior. Cohos are often found in coastal areas from southeast Alaska to central Oregon but can travel down to central California.

Coho (Silver) Salmon
Coho (Silver) Salmon

Pink (Humback) Salmon

Humpback (Pink) Salmon have large dark oval spots on their backs, general coloring, and entire tail fin compared to other Pacific salmon. Males develop humps on their backs when spawning. Pink salmon grow rapidly and migrate to marine waters immediately. Depending on the stage of development, their diets consist of crustaceans, zooplankton, squid, and small fish. Their migration and spawning range from Alaska’s Arctic coast to central California. However, they do not reproduce significantly south of Puget Sound and Washington.

Pink (Humpback) Salmon
Pink (Humpback) Salmon

Chum (Dog) Salmon

When in the ocean Chum (Dog) Salmon have metallic greenish blue along the back with black speckles. But as Chum Salmon enter fresh water, their appearance changes significantly. Males and femails develop a tiger-stripe pattern of black and red stripes. A young Chum’s diet consist of insects in the river and invertebrates in marine waters. Adults eat bait fish, copepods, mollusks, tunicates and squid. Chum Salmon can grow up to 3.5 feet and 30 to 36 pounds, but their average weight is 8 to 15 pounds.

Chum (Dog) Salmon
Chum (Dog) Salmon


Salmon migration begins in freshwater spawning grounds around Alaska, British Columbia, Canada, Washington, and Oregon, and sometimes to California (Figure 1). At some point in their lifespan, they migrate to the Pacific Ocean, traveling along the coasts of Alaska to California.

When matured, they migrate back to their spawning ground, spawning and eventually dying. Popular migration and spawning activities occur around the Puget Sound.

Their migration patterns also vary on the season. See Figure 1.

salmon migration
Figure 1 Salmon Migration (NOAA Fisheries)

During their fall migration, King salmon are found throughout the bays and connecting freshwater rivers and creeks in Puget Sound (Reference Figure 4 in the Additional Figures section).

Migration into the Puget Sound & Fishing Spots

Puget Sound is a popular King salmon fishing area near the Straits of Juan de Fuca because of crossovers’ migration and spawning behavior. Puget Sound is a large area, divided into different marine regions. The Puget Sound marine areas locally noted for ideal King, Coho, and Pink salmon fishing include Marine Areas 5-7 and 9-13 (Figure 2).

Figure 2 King Salmon Count in Marine Area 10

Marine Area 9 and Marine Area 10 sees some of the best King salmon action. Not only are they the center of Puget Sound, Marine Area 9 and 10 usually are open during peak King salmon fishing time, July through September. Fishing locations inside Marine Area 9 and 10 include:

  • Possession Bar
  • Point No Point
  • Shilshole
  • Jefferson Head
  • Kingston (Apple Cove)
  • Allen Bank
  • Manchester

See more articles on Marine 9 and 10 for more information about fishing these areas on my salmon fishing page.

    Freshwater Salmon Routes

    Marine Area 11 is also great fishing as Pacific salmon migrate through the Puget Sound. Great spots include:

    • Point Defiance
    • Commencement Bay
    • Dash Point
    • Quartermaster Harbor
    • Redondo
    • Point Robinson

    See more articles on Marine 11 for more information about fishing these areas on my salmon fishing page.

    Marine Area 13 is open all year round, so salmon fishing is available in Puget Sound for the whole year. Top King salmon fishing areas in Marine Area 13 include:

    • Point Fosdick
    • East side of Fox Island
    • Point Gibson
    • Ketron Island shoreline
    • Oro Bay
    • Thompson Cove/Lyle point
    • Nisqually Delta near “green can”
    • Dana Passage
    • Johnston Point

    To see more fall migration routes near Puget Sound, reference figures 5-8 in the Additional Figures section.

    See more articles on Marine 13 for more information about fishing these areas on my salmon fishing page.

    Hook ‘Em Deep!

    Additional Figures

    Figure 5 Salmon Freshwater Fall Migration
    Figure 6 Puget Sound Freshwater Salmon Routes
    Figure 7 Puget Sound Freshwater Salmon Routes
    Figure 8 Salmon Migration

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