An Outdoor View: The scent of salmon

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010

I was salmon fishing on Cook Inlet recently when a spirited discussion broke out on the subject of whether a particular salmon we had caught was a king or a silver.

The difference between these two Pacific salmon species is usually fairly obvious. Kings have small, irregular-shaped spots on the back, dorsal fin and usually on both lobes of the tail. Silvers have small spots on the back, dorsal fin and usually on only the upper lobe of the tail. Another difference is that the gums at the base of the teeth in the lower jaw of a king are black; in a silver, they're white.

However, these differences in appearance aren't always obvious. In silvery, ocean-caught fish, spots aren't always well defined, and gums aren't always just a question of black or white. Sometimes it's a tough call. If you harvest a king, you're required to record it on your license or harvest card. In summer, there's a seasonal harvest limit of five kings in Cook Inlet waters, so you don't want to mistakenly record a silver. What's a fisherman to do?

In the case above, the captain picked up the fish, sniffed it and proclaimed it a silver.

Until I witnessed this, I had thought I was the only one who was crazy. I've known for years that king salmon had a different aroma from the other species, but I'd never heard anyone else admit it.

I can't describe the odor of a freshly caught king. Other than lame adjectives, such as "good" and "nice," words fail me. The one time I tried, in a feature story for Alaska magazine, I referred to the scent as "redolent of the sea." An editor deleted that attempt. If you're curious, you'll sniff kings until you get it.

To me, freshly caught pink salmon also have a unique odor. While not quite as "good" or "nice" as a king's, it's not bad. But it's definitely different.

For all I know, all salmon wear odors unique to their species. If I were a betting man, I'd bet it's one of the ways they select a mate of their own species.

Also on the subject of fish odor, have you ever wondered how trout and other fish that eat the eggs that wash out of the redds of spawning salmon know when and where salmon are located? It can't be by sight. Some streams are so turbid, visibility is almost zero. It must be by smell. This must be how the rainbow trout in the lower Kenai know when it's time to migrate upstream to the salmon spawning grounds.

So, if you think the only scent salmon give off is when they're dead and rotting on a gravel bar, you might want to think again.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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