Watch Out for Coho Salmon in California’s Ocean Fisheries

A photo showing how to identify coho salmon

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife reminds ocean sport anglers to be vigilant about properly identifying their salmon before landing them.

The ocean salmon fishing season in the Monterey management area is well under way and areas to the north will open in late June. Coho (or silver) salmon, a protected species, are most likely to be encountered during late spring and early summer. Proper identification is critical for their survival.

Chinook (or king) salmon is the target salmon species in California’s ocean waters. The retention of coho salmon, however, is prohibited in all California ocean fisheries for the protection of Central California Coast and Southern Oregon-Northern California Coast coho stocks. Both stocks are severely depressed and listed under both state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

The current drought in California is also likely to produce additional stress on coho stocks. Thus, it is especially crucial this year to avoid any unnecessary mortality when handling and releasing coho salmon. Anglers are advised to take the time to correctly identify any salmon caught before removing it from the water. If it is a coho salmon, it should be unhooked and released while remaining in the water, with as little handling as possible. Handling can be reduced by removing hooks with a de-hooking tool, cutting the line if the hook has been swallowed, and/or by using a knotless net if netting is necessary. Together, these measures will help maximize the survival of coho encountered while pursuing Chinook salmon.

The most reliable method for identifying coho is through examination of the lower mouth and gums. The gums at the base of the bottom teeth on a coho salmon are gray, whereas Chinook gums are all black. Another way to distinguish a coho from a Chinook is to rub a finger along the fin rays of the caudal (tail) fin. The fin rays on a coho will feel rough like the edge of a dime, whereas the fin rays on a Chinook are smooth.

To help avoid contacting coho salmon, anglers should fish deeper as coho are more often found in the top 30 feet of water. Fishing closer to shore when possible and using larger lures that select for the larger Chinook salmon will also reduce chances of catching a coho salmon.

Anglers are advised to check for updated information when planning a salmon fishing trip. Season dates, bag/possession limit information and gear restrictions can be found on CDFW’s ocean salmon web page or by calling the Ocean Salmon Regulations Hotline at (707) 576-3429. Public notification of any in-season change to conform state regulations to federal regulations is made through the National Marine Fisheries Service ocean salmon hotline at (800) 662-9825.

post by Kandice Morgenstern, CDFW Environmental Scientist