The dictionary that hides in my Mac says “feisty” means “having or showing exuberance and strong determination.” That’s a fitting description of the chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), the feistiest of the five species of Pacific salmon in Alaskan waters.
My first run-in with a chum came in the late 1960s, on a creek on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska. I was casting spinners with a light spinning outfit, and catching fat, sea-run Dolly Vardens one after another, when something much bigger grabbed my spinner and headed for someplace else at great speed. Just short of taking all my line, it turned and ran back, stopping a few feet in front of me. While I reeled in 30 or 40 yards of slack line, the fish broached and glared at me. Just as I realized it was a large chum salmon, it spit out my spinner, sneered and swam away.
There’s no mistaking an adult chum salmon that’s nearing its spawning stream. The olive-green back and the maroon stripes on its flank were a giveaway. As a kid in Washington state, I’d seen rotting, spawned out chums along the Skagit River, but this was the first live one I’d had the pleasure of meeting. This encounter left me with a newfound respect for chums.
Chums are scarce in the Kenai. I was starting to wish they weren’t.
A trip to the Kamishak River, a glacier-fed river in Katmai National Park,convinced me that chums were vastly underrated. About half the size of the Kenai River, the Kamishak winds its way through miles of roadless wilderness. Getting there wasn’t easy. A guide and I boarded a float plane at Rainbow River Lodge near Iliamna, flew to the Kamishak’s estuary, climbed into an outboard jet-powered skiff and ran up the winding river several miles. We stopped at a gravel bar where we were all alone, except for the bear across the river. The guide handed me an 8-weight fly rod rigged with a fly that would’ve choked a king salmon and said, “Fish.”
On my first cast, I hooked into something that took off like a sockeye on steroids. It was a chum, the guide said, chuckling as I struggled to reel in the fish, which was maybe a seven-pounder. That fish wouldn’t come in! Even when I had finally pulled it into shallow water to release it, it remained upright, refusing to roll over onto its side. It’s jaws were clamped as tight as a two-year-old child refusing a spoonful of mashed peas.
Without even getting my feet wet, and casting no more than 20 feet, I hooked and landed five or six more of those fierce fighters before calling “uncle.”
My limited experience with chum salmon has been fishing for them with weighted flies, letting the fly swing with the current. Seeing a chum fly for the first time, you wonder what you’ve signed up for. Chums go for flies that look like something you’d throw at a tuna or tarpon, big, gaudy gizmos, articulated and lead-eyed, 4 or 5 inches long, in wild colors — pink, cerise and chartreuse.
You might “play” other salmon, but you “fight” chums, and they hit hard. If you’re armed with an 8-weight outfit, an average sized chum will have you longing for a 10- or 12-weight. Most chums in Cook Inlet waters likely weigh between 7 and 12 pounds, but they get larger. The Alaska state - record, caught in Southeast, is a 32-pounder. Scary thought, wading around with something that big, toothy and aggressive.
Chums may not take to the air as much as silvers, but they make up for it with their eagerness to bite and their never-give-up doggedness. What I like best about them is their attitude. Something about a chum’s bearing says, “What are you doing on my river?”
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.