The chum salmon (Oncorhyncus keta) is familiar to most anglers only because of the unique “tiger-stripe” patterns of red, purple, and black that spawning fish develop along their flanks. Because the species is not known for excellent table quality, its popularity suffers, compared to the more desirable Chinook, sockeye, and coho salmon. But chums are second only to Chinooks in size, readily take flies, and fight by making tackle-burning runs.
Range and Life History
The chum salmon may have once been the most abundant of all the Pacific salmonids, and it still has the widest natural geographic range: it is native on both the North American and Asian continents, and it spawns farther into the Arctic Ocean than do other species. Originally, chums could be found as far south as Monterey, California, but the Golden State hosts only tiny, intermittently spawning populations today. Tillamook Bay, in northern Oregon, is now considered the southern end of the species’ effective range in the U.S., and there are fishable populations along the Washington coast. In Asia, chums can be found from Korea and far northern Japan north into Siberia.
Chums return to their natal waters to spawn after three to six years. Unlike other Pacific salmon, chums usually spawn at the mouths or in lower sections of rivers, with two exceptions—the Yukon River and Russia’s Amur River—where they travel as far as 2,000 miles upstream. The Yukon hosts two distinct runs, known as “summer” and “fall” chums, with the later fish being older, heavier, and traveling farther upstream.
After hatching, juvenile chum salmon spend just a few days or weeks in fresh water before migrating down to the ocean, where they inhabit shallow eelgrass beds for a few months before heading out into the open ocean. In contrast, the juveniles of other species spend as much as two years in fresh water.
What’s in a Name?
Chums are known by many different names, some of which are misunderstood by most people. “Chum,” for instance, has nothing to do with chopped fish bait, but is instead an Anglicization of the word tzum—meaning “spotted” or “marked”—from Chinook Jargon (a 19th-century trade language, based on vocabulary from the Chinook Indian tribe of the lower Columbia River basin). The species is called “dog salmon” because of the marked canines that male fish develop during the spawn, not, as some claim, because the fish are so tasteless that they are fed to dogs. In Russia, the species is “Keta salmon,” from the Evenki language of eastern Siberia. Finally, “calico salmon” is a clear reference to the multicolor patterns of spawning fish.
Tactics and Flies
Chum salmon are usually between 7 and 15 pounds in Alaska, although they are often larger along the British Columbia coast and smaller in the southern parts of their range. The world-record fish—caught at Edye Pass, BC, in 1995—weighed 35 pounds. July is prime season in western Alaska, but chums are usually the last species to enter fresh water in the Pacific Northwest, usually beginning in late October. The same tactics used for Chinook salmon, such as swinging large streamers deep through softer water on the edges of the current, work well for chums in the lower reaches of rivers. Brightly colored flies—especially chartreuse and pink—with lots of wiggly motion are the best choices. Farther upstream, dead-drifting or slowly twitching bright flies can tempt more-finicky fish.