Salmon terms explained - atlantic salmon, fresh fish, coloured fish, kelts, black salmon, baggots and rawners

atlantic salmon biology salmon and kelts

Salmon terms fresh salmon, kelts, baggots and rawners

Comparison between fresh salmon, coloured salmon, baggot and kelt (spawned salmon)

Fresh run salmon - deep and well conditioned, silver in appearance, firm flesh and a strong fighter. Does not feed in fresh water and is a challenging quarry.

Spring salmon

This fish carried a number of sea lice and was caught on the River Spey mid February, weight around 7lbs.

Coloured male salmon - caught in October on a R Tay tributary these fish get aggressive towards spawning.

Coloured male salmon  

Well developed kypes and dark colouration are the signs of "red" fish preparing to spawn. Note the enlarged adipose fin.

Coloured female salmon
- caught in October

coloured female salmon

Dark coloured, distended belly heavy with eggs and the vent beginning to open are sure signs of the latter stages of preparation for spawning.

Kelt- thin and lanky in appearance. This fish is bright silver and preparing to migrate back to the sea.

Salmon kelt

Fins and tail damaged and torn, maggots in the gills, soft and poorly conditioned. The vent is often distended due to spawning and the belly is flat and hollow. Aggressive feeder and easily caught. Often rests in slower areas of rivers. Kelts are protected by law and must not be injured or damaged.

- well proportioned and dark coloured this fish caught on February 15 has not spawned or only partially spawned.

Baggot - unspawned female salmon  

Baggots are not dissimilar in appearance to coloured hens but their bellies are flabby.


Adult salmon change their appearance from silver to darker colours during their stay in fresh water. Those that have changed to the spawning livery are referred to as "coloured salmon". Those that survive spawning again change their appearance back to bright silver as they prepare to return to sea. The silver is caused by excretion of a substance called guanin beneath their scales which protects them from salt water by stopping their bodies absorbing excessive quantities of salts. This is but part of a process called osmo regulation for that purpose. Salmon migrate to the sea as smolts and return a number of years afterwards. Those that come back to the river after one winter are classed 1SW those that have stayed a little longer but not another winter have a '+' added to their class i.e. they are 1SW+ All 1SW fish are called grilse. A fish that has spent two winters in the sea is classed 2SW and most of the spring salmon belong to this class. Really large salmon spend more time in the sea before maturity and may be 3, 4 or 5SW.

After spawning salmon are called 'kelts' or "black salmon". Those weakened fish start to drop downstream and begin eating to recover condition. Female fish are the most likely to survive spawning because they head downstream immediately after laying their eggs. Males keep scouting around the redds looking for new females and fighting amongst themselves to mate with them, consequently the huge majority of them perish in the rivers and provide a source of protein that is appreciated by future generations as it recycles through insects etc. Kelts are very easily caught and occasionally beginners mistake them for 'clean' fish, a term used to describe a fish that has entered the river and has not yet spawned, and usually a specimen that is in reasonably bright condition. By contrast kelts and fish that are near to spawning are described as unclean fish. One further confusion remains the 'baggot' or 'rawner' both terms are used to describe fish that shed their spawn late or not at all. Such fish are occasionally caught in springtime on the early rivers and indeed some salmon may spawn as late as March month. Baggots can be distinguished by their soft flesh, distended bellies and sometimes open vents. No doubt over the years many of them have been accidentally kept as clean fish because they are clearly not kelts and indeed some boatmen were known to favour killing them. They must not be killed because it is illegal to do so. So there we have it, salmon terms fresh salmon, kelts, clean and unclean, baggots and rawners.

All of the fish photographed were out of the water for the absolute minimum amount of time to allow the pictures to be taken and none of them were subjected to being taken from the water's edge or being lifted into a boat.

Those that were netted were kept in the net in the water whilst the hook was removed and the two that were briefly beached got photographed as soon as they touched the shore (hence the cloudy water) and immediately placed back into the river whilst the hooks were removed. The practice of keeping the fish in the water is paramount to safe release and minimising stress.

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Copyright 2007 Alastair Gowans AAPGAI and FFF Master and THCI, APGAI. All rights reserved.