Although all Copper River salmon make for excellent dining options, there are three main species with slight differences between them: the King, Sockeye and Coho salmon.
Each is known around the world for their beautiful color and exquisite flavor. Dining options are numerous for each species, including smoking, baking, grilling, broiling, sautéing, steaming or poaching.
Their lifecycles are similar as well. They grow to full size in the ocean over the course of several years and then return to the Copper River to spawn, albeit it at slightly different times during the year.
The King salmon (oncorhynchus tshawytscha), known in native Alaska languages as the Chinook, is the most highly prized wild Alaska salmon for several reasons. Beyond their firm texture and excellent taste, they are the first salmon to run up the Copper River each spring. Therefore, the demand from salmon-seeking restaurants and individuals is very high after several months of winter without fresh, wild salmon options. The King is the largest of the Pacific salmon, averaging about 20 pounds but ranging as high as 40 pounds and beyond. It is also the longest living Copper River salmon. While each salmon spends a different amount of time in the ocean before returning to spawn, many King salmon live up to seven years.
The King can be distinguished from other Copper River salmon mostly by the black spots sprinkled along its back, fins and tail. Many King also have black gums and a mixed orange and red flesh color.
Although the King may be the first salmon to head up the Copper River each year, the Sockeye salmon claims the majority of the fishing season. Also known as the Red salmon, or by its Latin name oncorhynchus nerka, the Sockeye run begins fairly close to the King’s in the middle of May but continues all the way through July. The Sockeye only lives up to about five years of age and weighs about six pounds on average. Its other distinguishing characteristics are a bright, deep red flesh color and a more elongated, almost skinny body.
The King kicks off the salmon season and the Sockeye maintains the middle, so the end of the season is Coho salmon time. Their spawning run begins in the middle of August and extends through September. The Coho, also known as Silver salmon or oncorhynchus kisutch, is the shortest living Copper River salmon at no more than four years. Their main distinguishing feature is cloudy spots on their dark blue back, but none on their bellies. They are also larger than their cousins, weighing in at about 10 pounds on average and ranging several pounds heavier.