Why do Salmon Species have Two Names?

Have you ever heard reference to king salmon, sockeye salmon, chum salmon, chinook salmon, pink salmon, silver salmon, coho salmon, and several more? Have you then questioned, “wait, I thought there were only five species of Pacific salmon?”

In both cases, you’d be right.

There are indeed five major Pacific salmon varieties, and you also weren’t mistaken when you heard all those names. It turns out that all five species have second names (and in some cases, even more). So how come they all have two names, and what are the different names?

The names

Let’s start by going over what the two major names of each Pacific salmon species are.

Chinook salmon = King salmon

Sockeye salmon = Red salmon

Pink salmon = Humpback salmon

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Prehistoric. #alaskalife #pinksalmon #streamereater

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Chum salmon = Dog salmon

Coho salmon = Silver salmon

So, why two names?

In reality, the answer is quite simple. These fish don’t have two names. They have nicknames. Just like largemouth bass are sometimes called bucketmouths, brook trout are called speckled trout, and walleyes are called marble eyes or simply shortened to ‘eyes, these salmon each have a nickname.

What’s different, though, is that other fishes’ nicknames are often obviously nicknames, and are usually clearly used as slang. On the other hand, double salmon names often seem to be used interchangeably, as though both names are equally valid.

While you might expect to hear your grandpa refer to “ol’ bucketmouths,” you wouldn’t expect to see the phrase in an article explaining the spawning habits of largemouth bass. Either name for a salmon species, however, is fairly likely to show up in serious discussion of the fish as though they are entirely interchangeable and neither is necessarily slang.

Just like other fish nicknames, though, there are reasons behind each of the salmon nicknames. Chinooks are often called kings because of their large size. Sockeyes are called reds for the obvious reason that during spawning, they show off a dazzling red coloration. Similarly, pinks are called humpbacks for the distinct spawning-season hump they sport on their back. Coho salmon are called silvers because of their bright, chrome-like coloration. Perhaps the least obvious is the chum salmon’s nickname of dog salmon. Most likely, this name comes from the large, canine-like teeth the chum salmon develops during the spawn. I’ve also heard some people say that chums, known for being less tasty than other species, are best fed to dogs.

Are there more than two names?

Another reason that the double-salmon-naming may stand out is that it seems as though they all have two, and only two, primary names. These second names don’t seem like nicknames because all the other fish with nicknames have several, while the salmon all seem to have two main ones.

In reality, though, many of these species actually do have more than the two main names that people use interchangeably. For example, what’s usually known as either a chum or dog salmon can also be called an autumn salmon, calico salmon, or keta salmon. These just sound more like nicknames and aren’t used as frequently.

In other species, like the sockeye, there is another class of name that can also get confusing. Kokanee salmon, found in inland states like Colorado and Montana, are actually the same thing as sockeye salmon. They just don’t migrate from the sea. These landlocked fish, although the same species, generally don’t grow as large and instead move through rivers and lakes. Even though the use of the word kokanee does signify something different than sockeye, it’s not actually a different species of fish. Just another salmon whose naming system seems to disregard the conventions held by other prominent game fish.

A fly fisher holds a kokanee salmon while wading in a river
Kokanee salmon usually don’t get to be as large as their sea-run brothers.

If you’ve ever been confused by the naming standards of salmon, you aren’t alone. I spent the better portion of my life never making the connection that these names were often referring to the same species.

What names do you use for these fish? Do you stick with one or switch between the two? Let me know in the comments!


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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.