Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pack of Chums

Chum salmon, also know as dog salmon are arguably the toughest salmon on a pound per pound basis.  King salmon, because of their considerably larger size, usually require a longer fight, but after the first few moments the fight becomes a redundant battle of inches.  With chum salmon the fisherman can never be sure what to expect.  Some fish explode with blistering runs punctuated with impressive aerial displays including tail walking and high jumps.  Other fish will just slow play the fight until they get really pissed and then unexpectedly explode.  It is for this reason the the ugly dog salmon is possibly my favorite anadromous quarry. 

Steelhead are a gorgeous and elegant fish, which have a special spot in any fly fisherman's heart because of their relation to rainbow trout.  Kings are the epitome of power and size; pure muscle with a big fin on back.  Chums are definitely not elegant thanks to their grotesquely protruding teeth (and a somewhat canine snout) and violent splashes of color on their sides not unlike a blood splatter.  Chums sport a face that only a mother could love, but their tenaticity has an appeal that is something a king or steelhead can't offer, at least in this fisherman's opinion. 

Chums Can Leave Your Gear in Shambles
I personally have witnessed more gear destroyed with a chum at the end of the line than any other fish.  On my last trip to BC my brother fished all week bringing in numerous kings and pinks and it wasn't until the last day when he had a strong dog on when his 4 piece rod was turned into a 5 piece.  I have had reels destroyed [see left], entire fly lines broken off, and have actually been bloodied by these toothy critters.  I have learned my lessons and now when I pursue chums I come with stronger rods and thicker tippets to subdue these tenacious fish. 

A Strong Chilliwack River Chum
Chums usually get chased out of a king runs fairly quickly so they typically don't linger around kings for very long.  One day on the Chilliwack river, in the middle of a king run, I saw a lighter fish pull into a king run.  I was in position to cast to this fish and almost instantly I was hooked up with a hot chum.  This S.O.B. turned 180 degrees and bolted down stream faster than any king I had hooked the entire trip.  During that seething run the handle on my reel rapped my left hand about a dozen times before the pain registered and I pulled my sore hand away.  That day my most memorable fish was that chum even though it was possibly the smallest fish I hooked that day. 

Spawning Chums on the Chehalis
To me the most intriguing thing about the chum salmon is their dynamic coloring.  The males typify the spawning condition with gnarly teeth, a humped back, and bright indigo vertical barring.   These bars are present on the widest part of the fish so as to increase a males apparent size to other competing males.  Females have a much more subdued appearance and some slight darker vertical barring, but no where near the male.  Females also have an obvious horizontal stripe down their sides.  The stripe is a signal to other chums that she is a docile fish and not to be harassed.  The stripe allows the males to determine which fish are a procreative threat and which are a potential partner.   You can easily determine the male from the female on this photo by the striping patterns.

The really cool thing is that the chums can literally change their coloring in seconds.  A female will increase the intensity of her stripe to increase her femininity to surrounding mates.  Conversely, competitive males can enhance the color of their bars to show other males they are not to be trifled with.  The coloring of a landed chum, whether male or female, is not indicative of their natural state because of the aggression the fish released upon being hooked and fought.  The fish below is obviously a hen because of the torpedo shape and non-protruding jaw, but both the vertical bars and horizontal stripe are quite noticeable.  This fish likely had a solid stripe before she was hooked. 

Eric and a Nice Hen
Another great thing is that they are a very well biting fish meaning that just about any presentation will work.  Swinging, indicator nymphing, and bottom bouncing with flies are all effective presentations.  My personal favorite is indicator nymphing because while they might be bitey the aren't always obvious bites and an idicator can really help detect strikes.  Even further than that I like to use a 14' spey rod for a nymphing rod (a completely bastardization of the spey setup, a topic for another day), which gives me a very strong rod to fight these aggressive fish with. 

Every year when fall rolls around I find myself yearning to go do some salmon fishing.  While the kings are a major attraction, I find that it's the chums that I really want to catch because they are such a memorible fish in every sense. 

Eric and Richard During an Epic Day on the Stave River