Chums! (Oncorhynchus keta)
Jason Brooks, November 05, 2017
Enjoying a dinner party a few years ago some non-fishing friends of mine decided to surprise me with a grilled salmon entre’. Standing in the kitchen and observing the preparation of this meal I was definitely surprised when the salmon came out of the refrigerator. The grocery store label clearly stated, “Keta Salmon.” At that time, it didn’t dawn on me what a “Keta” was and then I saw the price tag and how it was only about $4.00 a pound. Curiosity got the better of me and I flipped one of the fillets over and saw the ever revealing purplish bar of a Chum. The meat looked good and the scales were bright, it was an ocean caught fish. And much to another surprise of mine it tasted mild and though it wasn’t a deep red Sockeye it wasn’t bad either.
Chum, “Dog”, or Keta salmon might get a bad reputation for table fare and probably rightly so if they are caught in the fresh water. Even the “It will smoke up just fine” crowd would have to admit that it does not smoke or bake well once the fish turns to their illustrious green and purple spawning colors. Those that like to fish for Chums do so because they are often plentiful in rivers and fight hard. Plus, it is an aggressive fish and easy to catch on a variety of gear and techniques.
From late October until mid-November just about every coastal river and those that drain into Puget Sound get a run of Chums. This is also the same run timing as Coho and a few late Chinook. On any given casts an angler might hook any of the three. Saltwater anglers can narrow their target species and go for bright Chums still good for table fare and also a fight of proportions much better than the death roll of a Coho and even arguably harder than a deep diving Chinook.
Fly anglers too target the Chums with large bright colored bunny leaches in purple, chartreuse, green and cerise. An 8 weight to 10 weight rod with a slow sinking line and a strong tippet. Chums are a great fish for those that want to practice their double haul casts or break out the Spey rod and hook multiple fish in a single outing. Of course this does spoil one to think that come winter steelhead season it will be this easy, making those days even longer. It’s hard not to get excited for the “Dogs of Fall” even if you would rather hook into another species of salmonid or trout.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have conducted studies on the life cycle of Chums as they provide an important role in commercial, tribal and recreational fisheries. Most runs enter Pacific Northwest rivers in late October through November, however Hood Canal does have a strain known as a summer Chum salmon that returns in late August and September and the Nisqually river in southern Puget Sound has a winter Chum with a peak run timing around Christmas.
Most Chum runs spawn in November with a female making a redd in a gravel area and the males compete to spawn with her. The female will broadcast her eggs over a period of several days, not in just one release like some people think. Males continue to fight and compete to spawn with the female and once she has released all of her eggs she will stand guard over the redd until she dies. Males move on and find other females. This makes it possible for genetics to be spread around and not one single redd has the same two parents for all of the approximate 3,000 eggs the female will broadcast. This is why it so important for anglers to stay off of redds and not disturb the gravel or chase off a female by catching her while she stays on guard of the redd and spawning which can take around five days to complete her cycle.
In four months the eggs hatch and the alevins live in the same gravel until the egg yolk is consumed and they become fry. Chum fry don’t stay in the river but instead head directly out to the salt water where they will school up. Any good sea-run cutthroat angler knows this as early spring schools of Chum fry can be seen from shore where they seek cover in the shallow flats. Sea-run cutthroat and other predator fish and birds take a fair share of the Chums in their first year of life where they live in the estuaries.
Once the fish reach around six inches they start their migration out to sea. Most Washington Chums head north to the colder waters off of Canada before finally making their way to Alaskan waters for their second and third year of life. It’s in their third year of life where they put on weight and a few will head back to their natal rivers to spawn. Most continue to feed and grow until year four before heading back and spawning and a few more spawn in their fifth year of life. There have been six-year-old Chums recorded but it is very rare, even five-year-old Chums make up very little of the spawning cycle.
It is in the salt water where there is commercial value in the “Keta” not only because of grocery store marketing where at a dinner party a non-angler would purchase such a fine fish to serve unsuspecting guest but also for the Chums high oil content. Fish oil supplements, fertilizers, and pet food are some of the commercial uses for Chums. Anglers who want to catch their own ocean swimming Dog salmon often find them schooled up nearing the rivers where they will stage until entering the fresh water.
Chums in the salt are aggressive and easy to catch once you find them. Both the bank bound and boat angler can target fish by using a slip float and an orange label size herring or anchovy suspended underneath. Spoon fishing is also popular with the Daredevil by Eppinger Company in bright green and white or the “old school” red and white, both with a single barbless siwash. Watch for schools of Chums breaking the surface as they near the river and stream mouths with the incoming tide and then cast to intercepting fish.
As the fish enter into fresh water they quickly turn, even starting their spawn morphing in the brackish waters of tidal influence canals and estuaries. Most anglers who target Chums in fresh water do so for their ferocious attack of the lure and a hard fight. Easily caught on many techniques the fresh water angling for Keta’s are a great way to learn and practice new techniques. One of the simplest ways to fish for them is to float bright colored 3/8 ounce jigs tipped with a piece of prawn under a slip float. Twitching the same jigs in deep slots and holes easily catch the aggressive chum salmon.
Oncorhynchus keta might not be revered as much as their cousins, and only a non-angler who passes the fish counter might get excited at the affordable price of a fresh fillet, but these salmon are an important part of the Pacific Northwest. They are a prefect fish for a new angler as they are easy to catch, plentiful runs still occur each fall in most rivers and streams, and their size makes for a great fight. Chums, Dog, or Keta, whatever you wish to call them are a fish that should get a better reputation than we give them credit for.
SIDEBAR: Top places to fish for Chum’s
Washington saltwater fisheries:
Hoodsport Hatchery centrally located on Hood Canal
Hood Canal which boasts healthy returns of Chums
Carr Inlet where you can intercept Minter Creek Hatchery fish
Kennedy Creek in Southern Puget Sound where anglers stand in the salt during the incoming tide.
Trolling near the green can in the Nisqually Delta
Washington freshwater fisheries:
Satsop River where Chums enter in November along with Coho and late Chinook
Green River just a short drive from Seattle or Tacoma with plenty of bank access
Nisqually River during Christmas week
Skykomish River though they can’t be retained the river is plentiful with Chums
Minter Creek at high tide, though this is a ¼ mile stream that is pure combat fishing