Great Lakes Trout and Salmon Identification – what anglers need to know

I spend a lot of my professional life identifying fishes. Most of this work has been in the Great Lakes basin but some work beyond this watershed into the Atlantic and Mississippi drainages. I’m regularly sent images from colleagues, friends and random anglers seeking help with fish identification. In recent weeks I’ve been bombarded with requests to identify Salmonid species. The Salmonids, or Salmonidae Family,  is a diverse family of various sub-families including Salmoninae (Salmon, Trout, Char), Coregoninae (Whitefishes) and Thymalline (Grayling).

Phylogenetic tree of 9 Salmonid species (Kitano et al 1997)

Depending on what group you ‘swim with’ each sub-family has their challenges. For anglers most of the identification issues come from the sub-family Salmoninae which consists of various genera including: Salvelinus (Char species), Oncorhynchus (Pacific Salmon species), and Salmo (Freshwater Trouts). 

In the Great Lakes Basin there can be enough variation in Salmonids that identification can be challenging at times. I’ve always encouraged anglers and fisheries professionals to use a systematic approach to fish species identification. How can anglers use this approach? Know you’re study species is the key. 

In the Great Lakes basin these are the Salmoninae species anglers may encounter: 

  • Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
  • Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
  • Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)
  • Rainbow Trout aka ‘Steelhead’ (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
  • Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
  • Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar)
  • Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
  • Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)

Below is my simple three step approach to collecting great fish images. 

Step 1: Know your camera

What do anglers need to know for them to accurately differentiate between the each species? The criterial first step is documenting the fish in question. For most anglers their best piece of equipment is a camera. With most smart phones having high quality cameras this is simple. Know how to use it. Cameras with a macro feature can be very helpful. Practice your picture taking beforehand. This will help wih reducing handling time of your subject. 

Step 2: Know your fish anatomy 

Knowing some basic fish anatomy will give any angler an edge in determining the identification of a most Great Lakes Salmonid species. One document I highly recommend was produced by the New York Sea Grant folks called: Salmon and Trout of Lake Ontario – A Visual Identifcation Guide. This guide explains much of the variation that exists in Great Lakes Salmonids in a format that easily compares the species in a side by side format. You can download the guide here:

Step 3: Take care of your fish 

This is the final and maybe most important step. When you catch a fish and you are questioning the identification be sure to photograph the important features quickly and carefully. Anglers should take appropriate measures to protect their catch. Keep the fish in water as much as possible. 

Some additional tips: 

  • Use a net to reduce fish handling and help to keep a fish wet. 
  • Keep the flash off on the camera unless you’re in the dark. 
  • Avoid laying fish on the ground for pictures. This can be very harmful to fishes as they could flop on the ground. Again, use a net. 
  • Ask a friend to help with collecting fish images including holding fins out/extended, etc. 

Thanks for reading! Enjoy your time on the water this season! 

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