Sockeye, also called "red salmon," are one of the most unique of the Pacific Salmon in that they require a lake for part of their lifecycle.

Oncorhynchus nerka

Identification Characteristics:

  • In males, back and sides are bright red to dirty red-gray, head is bright to olive green, tail is green to black
  • In females, colors not as bright, but red above lateral line
  • NO distinct spots on back or tail fin
  • Males have a large dorsal hump
  • Range in length from 20-28 inches

When they are young fish, called fry, they spend anywhere from a few months to a couple of years in their lake. Sockeye can sometimes be found spawning on the shores of the same lake where they spent their younger years. Sockeye almost always spawn in a water body that is somehow connected to a lake, be it a stream or the lake shore itself.  The Coast Region has only three Sockeye stocks, all of which are lake spawners: Lake Ozette, Lake Pleasant, and Lake Quinault.

Sockeye salmon have a wide variety of life history patterns, including landlocked populations of kokanee which never enter saltwater. Of the populations that migrate to sea, adult freshwater entry varies from spring for the Quinault stock, summer for Ozette, to summer for Columbia River stocks, and summer and fall for Puget Sound stocks.  Spawning ranges from September through February, depending on the stock.  After fry emerge from the gravel, most migrate to a lake for rearing, although some types of fry migrate to the sea. Lake rearing ranges from 1-3 years. In the spring after lake rearing is completed, juveniles enter the ocean where more growth occurs prior to adult return for spawning. 

Sockeye spawning habitat varies widely. Some populations spawn in rivers (Cedar River) while other populations spawn along the beaches of their natal lake (Ozette), typically in areas of upwelling groundwater. Sockeye also spawn in side channels and spring-fed ponds. The spawning beaches along lakes provide a unique habitat that is often altered by human activities, such as pier and dock construction, dredging, and weed control.

Photos from Inland Fishes of Washington by Whitney and Wydoski, © 1979 University of Washington Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Washington Press.