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  • Joey Karrigan

5 Kinds of Salmon You Can Find in Katmai

Although sockeye salmon are undoubtedly the most abundant in Katmai National Park and Preserve, all five species of Pacific salmon find their way into the Brooks River. These five salmon species share a similar lifecycle in that they (1) hatch from freshwater lakes and streams, (2) migrate to the sea as juveniles or young fish, (3) spend severals years in the ocean, and (4) reenter freshwater in order to mate and spawn the next generation of salmon, all the while experiencing (sometimes quite dramatic) physical freshwater transformations. Because of their sheer abundance, Sockeye salmon end up being the chief source of Katmai brown bears' winter fat stores. People mostly prefer sockeye and silvers for eating. Salmon feed more than just humans and bears, however—Katmai’s salmon runs are the biological bedrock for the entire ecosystem, providing rich nutrients to plants and animals all the way up the food chain.


Sockeye (Red) Salmon

Weighing 6–12 pounds, sockeye are medium-sized salmon. They have the most complex life cycle of all the salmon and travel the farthest inland to spawn. They spawn in freshwater lakes and streams, spend 1–2 years in lakes before migrating to the ocean, and then spend 2–3 years in the ocean before returning to their spawning grounds in order to reproduce before they die. While living in the ocean, sockeye are a silver fish with blue running down their backs (sockeye are also known as "blueback" salmon). When they reenter freshwater to reach their spawning grounds, their bodies become red and their heads turn green, a transformation which also marks their impending death. The sockeye run in Katmai peaks from late June through mid-July and they are the most numerous food source for Katmai's brown bears during mid-to-late summer.



A male red salmon during its ocean phase.
A male red salmon during its ocean phase.

A male red salmon during its spawning phase.
A male red salmon during its spawning phase.

Coho (Silver) Salmon

A popular game fish known for its strength and speed, coho average 7–11 pounds and spawn in coastal rather than inland streams. During their ocean phase, Cohos are distinguished by silver sides and dark-blue backs. During their spawning phase, their jaws and teeth become hooked and they develop bright-red sides, bluish-green heads, and backs. Coho salmon spend 1–3 years in the ocean before returning to freshwater to spawn. The silver run on the Brooks River is small and usually begins in late August.


A male silver salmon during its ocean phase.
A male silver salmon during its ocean phase.

A male silver salmon during its spawning phase.
A male silver salmon during its spawning phase.

Chinoook (King) Salmon

Chinooks are the largest of salmon, averaging 30–40 pounds and on occasion can even exceed 100 pounds. They are a favorite trophy salmon. During their ocean phase, they have signature silvery sides with a darker color along their backs and heads, sometimes blue-green or even a red or purple. During their spawning phase, their colors darken and they, like other salmon, develop a beak, called a “kype.” King salmon spend an average of 3–4 years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn. They are found in the Brooks and other rivers in Katmai but generally prefer to spawn in large rivers such as Columbia, Kenai and Yukon Rivers.


A male king salmon during its ocean phase.
A male king salmon during its ocean phase.

A male king salmon in his spawning phase.
A male king salmon in his spawning phase.

Pink (Humpy) Salmon

At an average of 5 pounds, pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific salmon. In their ocean phase, pink salmon are silver fish with large oval-shaped black spots on their backs, which can also exhibit some greenish/gray color as well. During their spawning phase, their colors can deepen and their bellies can at times be a yellowish-white. Most notably, they develop a pronounced humped back, after which they receive their nickname “humpies.” Pinks are not common in Katmai.



A male pink salmon in its ocean phase.
A male pink salmon in its ocean phase.

A male pink salmon in its spawning phase

Chum (Dog) Salmon

Similar to pinks, chums head for the sea almost as soon as they emerge as fry. They return to spawn in the fall of their third or fourth year, rarely traveling far inland.

In their ocean phase, chums are silvery blue-green with a paler belly. In their spawning phase, their color changes to a dark olive green and their belly color deepens. Males also develop a hooked snout and they have enlarged teeth. They average 10–15 pounds and are not abundant in Katmai.


A chum salmon in its ocean phase.
A chum salmon in its ocean phase.

A chum salmon in its spawning phase.
A chum salmon in its spawning phase.

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