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Identifying Sockeye Salmon

Juvenile Sockeye Identification

During their first year of life, young salmon can often be difficult to identify, particularly after they lose their parr marks. The following simple guide to juvenile salmon identification, is from The Stream Scene - Watersheds, Wildlife and People (1990), by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Portland, Oregon. For more definitive identification information, two more comprehensive field guides are listed below.

Click on image to enlarge
Click on image to enlarge

Additional Reading

  • Field Identification of Coastal Juvenile Salmonids (1997), by Pollard, Hartman, Groot, and Edgell. Harbor Publishing, Madeira Park, BC Canada.
  • Key to field identification of anadromous juvenile salmonids in the Pacific Northwest (1972), by McConnell and Snyder. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.

Adult Sockeye Identification

Maturing sockeye salmon return to Washington waters in the typical silvery ocean coloration. As the fish near their spawning streams, they begin to undergo changes in both color and physical form. The color gradually changes from silver with a dark back, to spawning colors dominated by a typical sockeye color pattern of a bright red body with green on the head and tail.

Ocean Phase

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Ocean coloration, sexes similar.
Typical Coloration - Silvery sides with a green or blue back and white tips on the ventral and anal fins. Sockeye have no large spots on back or tail, but some may have speckling on the back. They have no silver pigment on the tail, and they have a prominent gold eye color.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Spotting
    • No prominent spots on back or tail (small speckles may be present)
  • Mouth Color
    • Mouth is white with a white gum line and dark tongue
  • Scales
    • Average size scales
  • Other
    • Prominent gold colored eye
    • No silver pigment on the tail
    • Small teeth

Spawning Phase

Typical Coloration - Body color typically various shades of red , and the head and tail will be a greenish color. Males may display a vertical pattern of bars along the sides, and spawning females will usually display a dark vertical stripe. The striped pattern is a signal to other fish that is used to reduce aggression. See Chum Salmon Colors for a discussion of the varying colors displayed by spawning salmon.

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Male spawning colors
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Female spawning colors

Distinguishing characteristics - Identified by the bright red to dark red body color, and the greenish color on the head and tail. Sockeye are the only salmon species that displays different spawning colors on the body and head.

Live female sockeye spawner digging her redd and displaying the typical dark vertical striped pattern.

Sexing Sockeye Spawners

The identification of male and female sockeye salmon can be difficult when the fish are in marine waters and have not yet begun to develop the sexual characteristics associated with maturation and spawning. Sockeye spawners, however, are easily sexed and the following guide illustrates the different male and female characteristics.

Body Shape - Male sockeye spawners are deeper bodied than females, and have flat sides with hollow bellies. The females retain the more slender body shape of the ocean fish and will display a rounded belly when distended with eggs (see photograph below).


Male (top) and female (bottom) sockeye salmon in spawning colors.

Head and Jaws - The size and shape of the head and jaws are the most obvious characters that show differences between male and female sockeye spawners. The males display larger heads with elongated jaws, hooked snouts, and characteristic strongly developed teeth. The head of the female sockeye changes only slightly from the ocean form, with a slight elongation of the jaws and development of more modest spawner teeth.

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Male sockeye spawner showing strongly developed jaws and teeth.
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Female sockeye spawner with more modest head and jaw development.

Adipose Fins - An often over-looked sexual characteristic in Pacific salmon is the enlarged adipose fin on mature males, typically 2-3 time larger than on female fish.