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Wild Salmon

Is it Wild Salmon Season YET? 

The fishing season for salmon goes from late April to mid-October. Arguably, peak salmon season is from June to August in which pretty much every popular type of wild salmon is being caught and is available for sale. That said, due to the way this fish is prepared, the best time to buy salmon starts in early summer and goes through till the end of about September.

There are ten species of Pacific salmon. The types that we tend to see in season at Hooked include Sockeye, Spring, Coho, Pink and Chum (aka Keta).

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A WILD SALMON

As an anadromous (can live in both fresh and saltwater) species, wild salmon spend most of their life in the ocean and complete their life cycle by migrating up fresh water rivers back to their natal stream to spawn. In many cases, they return to the exact gravel bed where they were hatched.

How do salmon find their way back to the stream of their birth? It’s still a mystery, but it is thought they rely on a combination of genetic coding, celestial navigation, electromagnetic current, and a strong sense of smell.

The ritual of returning to their natal stream is an important characteristic of wild BC salmon stocks. (A biological fish stock is a group of fish of the same species that live in the same geographic area and mix enough to breed with each other when mature.) Each stock is genetically adapted to the environment in which it resides, and exhibits unique characteristics such as life history, migration route, migration timing, and productivity.

It is also important to note that the numbers of salmon that return to BC waters to spawn varies greatly from year to year and even decade to decade, with pronounced population cycles. For example, many sockeye salmon populations are very abundant every third or fourth year. This is most dramatically evident in the Fraser River where the quantity of some populations in abundant years is many times larger than that of other years. Longer term cycles also exist on occasion and seem to be linked to changes in ocean conditions that affect survival during the feeding migration.

The life-cycle of wild BC salmon starts when mature spawning females scoop out a hollow, called a redd, in the gravel of the stream bed and deposit on average between 2,500 and 3,000 eggs. Their eggs are immediately fertilized by the male salmon and then covered over with gravel by the female. This incubates the eggs over the winter. When the salmon first hatch from the eggs they are still under the gravel, and they are called alevins. By the spring, the alevins have grown into fry, at which point they resemble miniature salmon. These fry develop into smolts which then migrate to the ocean where they grow into adults (sea run).

Each of the five species has a different life cycle ranging anywhere from two to six or seven years. As smolts they migrate downriver to the cold open waters of the Pacific Ocean to grow and mature, often travelling thousands of kilometers. Here they feed on a rich seafood diet of plankton, crab, shrimp and even small fish such as herring. It is the variances in the diet of the species that actually help determine the flesh colour of each species.

When the adult salmon are ready to spawn, they miraculously return to the very river or stream of their birth. During the last leg of their journey home, they cease feeding and live off their stored fat. Their bodies change colour and shape during this time, and once their eggs are laid and fertilized, their cycle is complete and the salmon die.

SPRING (KING) SALMON

In terms of our value chain, the top salmon of them all is the Spring salmon, also known as Chinook or King Salmon. At Hooked we refer to these as Springs, so as to not confuse with our farmed New Zealand king salmon.

“Spring salmon are an iconic species of the north Pacific Ocean and the rivers of western North America and eastern Asia. Also known as “king” salmon, they are the largest of the Pacific salmon species with the world record for a commercial catch weighing in at 126 lbs. Like all salmon, this species is well known for undergoing long migrations and significant physiological changes in order to travel to the open ocean as young salmon, then return to freshwater rivers as adults to reproduce. Chinook salmon are active predators eating insects, amphipods, and other crustaceans while they’re young, and mostly other fish as they grow older and larger. 

Chinook salmon are also an important species for humans, other animals and coastal ecosystems. For large marine mammals such as the Steller sea lion and the endangered Southern Resident killer whale, Chinook salmon are a favourite and make up most of their diets. For terrestrial animals like bears, birds, and wolves, spawning salmon offer a great feast before winter. Their discards become compost for the coastal forests meaning even trees growing along the rivers rely on the Chinook! To humans, they are highly valuable to commercial, recreational, and Indigenous fisheries, aquaculture operations, and cultural and spiritual practices. “

Springs are the least abundant wild Pacific salmon species. They are also the highest in fat content and the largest, making them the most sought after salmon in the world. Springs have a buttery, rich flavour when cooked. The filets are thick, so we recommend cooking over a low fire, low grill, cedar plank or slow baking in the oven to properly render the rich fat throughout the flesh. Cooking to medium is perfect.

If the springs are troll caught in the open ocean, they make incredible fish for sashimi or crudo. They are very mild in flavour, super clean tasting, with a great mouthfeel and bite. The belly is exceptional eaten raw. We do not encourage raw fish consumption once the fish has entered freshwater to spawn.  

SOCKEYE SALMON

The next most cherished salmon in line at Hooked is the sockeye. The cost is significantly less that the spring due to its relative abundance and availability, smaller size and slightly lesser fat content. “The name sockeye comes from a poor attempt to translate the word suk-kegh from British” Columbia's native Coast Salish language. Suk-kegh means red fish.

The sockeye, also called red or blueback salmon, is among the smaller of the seven Pacific salmon species, but their succulent, bright-orange meat is VERY HIGHLY prized. They range in size from 24 to 33 inches in length and weigh between 5 and 15 pounds. Like all other Pacific salmon, they are born in freshwater, however, sockeye require a lake nearby to rear in. 

Once hatched, juvenile sockeyes will stay in their natal habitat for up to three years, more than any other salmon. They then journey out to sea, where they grow rapidly, feeding mainly on zooplankton, crustaceans and smaller fish. They stay in the ocean for one to four years.

Sea-going sockeyes have silver flanks with black speckles and a bluish top, giving them their "blueback" name. However, as they return upriver to their spawning grounds, their bodies turn bright red and their heads take on a greenish color. Breeding-age males have a distinctive look, developing a humped back and hooked jaws filled with tiny, easily visible teeth. Males and females both die within a few weeks after spawning.”

Sockeye salmon have an electric red colour to their flesh, with an integrated fat structure that makes the flesh look lean when indeed it is not. The flavour of sockeye salmon is much more pronounced and ‘salmon-y’ than the spring. Sockeye is a truly delicious fish. We love it on a low grill, lightly smoked and then pan fried on medium low, cold smoked or hot smoked. It’s important to never cook sockeye past medium well, as the texture gets very firm and the delicacy of the fish is lost.

COHO SALMON

Next in line on the value chain is coho salmon, a firm, bright orange-red fleshed member of the salmon family that is loved at Hooked for its mild flavour, medium fat content and typically lower price point. 

Coho are later spawners, so tend to hit the shop once most of the best sockeye has already come and gone. Highly adaptable, coho can be found in rivers and streams across North America. They generally weigh from 8 to 12 lbs and run from 18 to 24 inches in length.

Coho are incredible challenges for sport fishers, they're hard to catch, leaping up but also sideways. They're known for a 'smash and run' pattern when they bite, and the angler should be prepared to dart from one side of the boat to the other to keep up. Like springs, coho are highly prized by sport fishers. Coho, especially large ones, and especially during spawning, can look a lot like a spring. However in the ocean, they can be easily identified by their dark blue backs. When spawning, a coho's snout becomes blunt and deeply hooked. Male coho’s lower mouths get so swollen during spawning that they can't close them!

Coho spend at least one winter in freshwater before moving out to the ocean. They then spend about 18 months of their adult lives there before returning at the age of three or four to their natal rivers and streams, which are often slow-moving waters. Late fall is the peak of coho spawning.

In their freshwater stages, coho feed on plankton and insects, then switch to a diet of small fish upon entering the ocean as adults. Spawning habitats are small streams with stable gravel substrates. Ocean-caught coho is regarded as excellent table fare. It has a moderate to high amount of fat, which is considered to be essential when judging taste. Only springs and sockeyes have higher levels of fat in their meat. One reason they taste so good is because of their own eating: they're known for being greedy and gluttonous as young adults, and they grow very quickly as a result.”

KETA SALMON  - COMMONLY KNOWN AS CHUM SALMON

Keta is also sometimes called dog salmon, likely because of the developed teeth that grow when the males are spawning. Keta is of less value than spring, sockeye or coho due to its significantly lower fat content, its softer flesh and its abundance. Once the keta leave freshwater and head out to the open ocean to feed and grow, their main food source is squid, which leads to a lower fat content in the fish.

Chum salmon generally spawn in late fall and usually in the lower tributaries along the coast, rarely more than 150 kilometres inland. Fry (babies) emerge in the spring and go directly to sea. Chum are substantial fish, second only to Chinook in terms of size in the salmon family. They generally weigh 12 to 15 lbs, and measure 35 to 45 inches long. The flesh of keta is a paler, peachy pink colour and the texture can be quite soft. It’s flavour is mild and the flesh can be easily overcooked and become dry due to its low fat content. We recommend cold smoking, pan frying or even grilling whole or in steaks. It should be cooked no further than medium rare.

You must believe that our excitement for the coming season is bubbling, we've seen a few test fisheries and are on the edge of our seats for another year of beautiful, wild salmon.

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