Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Dance of the Chum Salmon

This year could be a make or break year for chum salmon! Their numbers are severely down on the north coast with two years of heavy fall floods the returns from this year are critical for their survival. Please rethink your angling on these fish as they need a break and by avoiding any unnecessary angling pressure and being ever mindful of their redds you and I can make a difference with chum salmon.
When I am out on the river I always feel blessed when I can witness nature in action. Whether it's seeing a family of river otter or a bald eagle or a bobcat or something as simple as a common shore bird trying to scratch out a living along the banks of a river. Mother nature never fails to come through.
A few years back I was floating the tidewater portion of the Kilchis river on the northern Oregon coast and witnessed a natural phenomena that I will never forget. I like to call it the dance of the chum salmon because it could not have been more precisely choreographed if a professional dancer had actually been involved. Picture a school of at least five hundred of these salmon rolling on the water surface in unison! That is what I saw and I saw it more than was, to use a tired cliché, awe inspiring. It's something I would never had witnessed had I not been in the lowest portion of the river on an incoming tide.
The return of the chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) to two small Oregon rivers has taken place every year around election day. You will see their mottled shapes in large numbers in the Miami and Kilchis river near Tillamook as they ascend the shallow riffles of the lower river. They come into fresh water ready to spawn and will usually spawn in the lower reaches of these rivers. As salmon go the chums are on the lowest rung of the salmon hierarchy. Despite being extremely plentiful in Alaska, commercial fishers often choose not to fish for them because of their low market value in comparison to the more sought after species like Chinook or Coho.
Their harvest value to the angler is also low because they turn very quickly upon entering the river.
The one thing that these salmon take a back seat to no other Pacific salmon is their fight. I know of no other species in the Pacific north west that battles when hooked better than the chum. These fish come readily to a fly and would break an eight weight fly rod quite easily. Yes they will snap your $700 Winston Boron fly rod as easily as they would your $50 Eagle Claw.

This is me from a few years ago fighting a chum salmon on the Miami River in Oregon.

The over developed canine like teeth give them their other popular nickname "Dog" salmon. One could just imagine the ferociousness that the toothy males exhibit when spawning and doing battle with other amorous males.
They are as unique in their behavior and coloration as any other of their more popular brethren.
As I said these salmon deteriorate quickly and are not good table fare. In Oregon they are protected under the Endangered Species Act because of their declining numbers while in Washington they remain abundant at least for the time being.
I like to think of these chum as the "working class" among the various salmon species. You have the regal Chinook or King salmon and you have the acrobatic and enigmatic Coho but the unattractive scrappy chum seem to have to work harder and get less recognition that it's more photo-genetic brethren. Their determination is admirable and while they won't win any beauty prize they will fight like no other west coast salmon.
They all come up the rivers seemingly at once and when you look into a pool only to see hundreds of them it's at times breathtaking. They get little respect from most anglers also and that is too bad. Because of the sheer numbers that are present in the river during the chums spawning and also their catch and release status they are not treated with care upon their release. Unceremoniously booted back in the river after being snagged is a treatment these fish do not deserve. One has to care about wild fish to know the importance of every one of them but sadly many do not.
So with their life's task complete and they are near death they are at the mercy of the river just like they were a few years earlier and just out of the gravel. A noble warrior, who like the working class hero I compared them to earlier, did his job and did it well.
Any of you that fish for chums please be aware that their numerous redds in the lower portion of the river should be avoided and special care needs to be taken when wading in chum salmon rivers.


  1. Anonymous3:19 PM

    I love chum. They really battle, are beautiful in their own right, and strike anything green. Fishing Washington's Nooksack a couple years back, there was less than 1" of visibility and we were still nailing the chum. I love those fish. It really is a shame they aren't more valued by anglers. Oregon seems to be doing next to nothing to recover them.

  2. Love the chum--that wother comment was me too. Before I had a blog. I've really wanted to fish those runs you mention but will leave them be this year.

    Where I fish is the southern end of their historic range--the Siuslaw. Every once in awhile they are abundant--or so I've heard but otherwise there are just a few if any.

    Heard of one being caught on the Chetco this year. Go figure.

    Anyway, I also heard their eggs command a high price in the asian market and they are being increasingly targeted.