Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar)

The only salmon in the Salmonidae family that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and its tributaries, the Atlantic salmon has been coveted for its excellent flesh since recorded history.


Compared to the size of its body, a mature Atlantic salmon has a small head. Its body is long and slim, and in adults the caudal or tail fin is nearly square. Individuals that return to spawn prematurely (called grilse) are mostly males and have slightly forked tails. At sea, the Atlantic salmon is dark blue on top of its head and back; its sides are a shiny silver, and the belly is white.

The fins are dark, and there are numerous black marks in the shape of an X or a Y on its head and along its body above the lateral line. When the fish enters freshwater to spawn, it gradually loses its metallic shine and becomes dull brown or yellowish.


The Atlantic salmon can live for 8 years and is the second largest of all salmon. Unofficial historical reports talk of specimens weighing as much as 100 pounds. The alltackle world record, a specimen weighing 79 pounds, 2 ounces, was taken in Norway in 1928. Most specimens today weigh 20 pounds or less, and fish exceeding 30 pounds are rare.

Spawning behavior

Spawning usually occurs in gravel bottoms at the head of riffles or the tail of a pool in the evening or at night. Unlike Pacific salmon, the adults do not die after spawning. Exhausted and thin, they often return to sea immediately before winter or remain in the stream until spring. Some survive to spawn a second time.


In the ocean, salmon grow rapidly, feeding on crustaceans and other fish such as smelt, alewives, herring, capelin, mackerel, and cod. They do not feed during their upstream spawning migration.

Other Names

sea-run fish, grilse, grilt, fiddler, Kennebec salmon; Danish and Norwegian: laks; Dutch: zalm; Finnish: lohi; French: saumon Atlantique, saumon d’eau douce; German: lachs, las, salm; Italian: salmo, salmone; Japanese: sake masu-rui; Portuguese: salmao; Russian: losos; Spanish: salmón del Atlantico; Swedish: lax.


The anadromous Atlantic salmon is native to the North Atlantic Ocean and coastal rivers. Native anadromous Atlantic salmon have been extirpated from most of their more southerly range, victims of industrial growth, dams, pollution, and other factors. Self-supporting runs of anadromous Atlantics exist in Canada, especially Quebec, but also in New-foundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.


Anadromous Atlantic salmon spend most of their lives in the ocean, ascending coastal rivers to spawn. They are found in freshwater only during their spawning runs.