When it comes to salmon fishing, there are often two thoughts on the subject. The first being table fare, always trying to catch the freshest salmon that will eat the best, regardless of the recipe. Of course, sockeye are at the top of this list, along with bright coho, and ocean caught chinook. Last on that list is probably chum, with the exception of river run pinks, but since chums are an every-year fish, unlike the smaller but also low river system spawner the pink, the chum salmon is not always considered good eating quality. Even those in the commercial market change the name of ocean caught chum to entice the chef, and are called by their scientific nomenclature, the Keta salmon. There is no disguising a chum once it hits the barbecue. Even the ocean fish, which is very edible but lacking oils, taste bland. The second list for the salmon angler, and one that is just important, is catchability, or how easy it is to catch the fish, along with their fight. This is where the chum shines, and it is at the top of my list of salmon I like to catch and release in the fall.
I don’t think there is a fish on the planet that is as aggressive as the chum salmon- well, okay, maybe a barracuda or northern pike, but for the Pacific salmon species, chums are at the top of the “get in my way and I will kill you” list. This makes for a fun day of catching chums, and the fact that they are the second largest salmon species means a hard-fought battle once you hook into these “dog” salmon. This means using stout gear, so before we start talking tactics, let’s take a look at what rods, reels, and line you should use.
Chum fishing in the rivers often means catch and release, so it is best to use gear that can handle these fish as well as get them back to the river quickly. You don’t want to stress the fish so much that it dies after the fight, as that would defeat the purpose of allowing the fish to go back into the river to make more fish. Starting with the rod, think like a chinook angler and use a stout, medium-heavy to heavy action rod, often rated for 20 to 30-pound fish, or up to 5-ounce lures. If using a casting reel then you will be well equipped, as those reels have heavy drag systems, but for anglers who can’t cast them without creating backlash, then a 4000 series or larger spinning reel is best. You can get away with a smaller reel like a 300 or 3000 series (depending on the manufacturer, as each use a different numbering system) but be sure to be ready to crank down the drag a bit. Mainline isn’t much of an issue now that braid has become standard practice, but even still you will want to run a minimum of 30-pound line, with 40 and even 50 being preferred. Depending on which technique you use, if monofilament line is involved it is best to use 20-pound for leaders, as a minimum due to the teeth these dog salmon have once they start to enter the spawning phase of their lifecycle.
Now that you have an idea of what kind of gear is needed, the technique or tactics used to catch these fish vary by type of water you will be fishing and even the crowds around you, as you don’t want to be that one angler who decides to swing spoons when others around are float fishing. Regardless of which technique you do use, be sure to use one that will not only hook the fish legally (in the mouth) but also allow you to reel it in quickly, snap a photo, and then send the fish on its way.
Floating jigs tipped with a piece of prawn is one of the best techniques to catch chums. Not only is this an easy way to fish, but watching a float sink into the river while you set the hook is an adrenaline rush. What can seem like a mundane way to fish quickly turns into a frenzy of excitement. Best of all, it is simple, works anywhere fish are found, and not just chums, but coho and early winter steelhead or late summer steelhead are also caught in this technique. Several years ago, while fishing the Green River near Seattle, we were drifting down the river in my drift boat and floating bright colored jigs tipped with a piece of raw prawn. The float went under, and to our surprise a late summer steelhead jumped out of the water. A bonus fish that was also released to swim and spawn another day.
When it comes to floating jigs, it is best to downsize them to a ¼ ounce as they fish a bit better under the bobber than heavier jigs. But if you do want to keep things simple, the 3/8-ounce twitching jig does work under a float. Regardless of twitching or float fishing, the jigs chums prefer bright colors. A white head with a cerise body is a good “go to”, but so is chartreuse and black, as well as cerise and black, as the contrasting of bright and dark seems to entice the bite. Purple and pink are other top colors.
As for that piece of prawn on the jig- if you don’t have prawns, or just forgot to grab some from the grocery store, jigs take on scent really well. If using a marabou jig, then realize that the gels will ruin the action of the jig. Instead, use Pro-Cures water soluble products, with bloody tuna and sand shrimp being very popular for chum anglers. It is hard to beat prawns, and they are a cheap bait to buy. A handful of prawns cost a few dollars at the seafood counter at the local grocery store. You can fish them raw but another way to add contrast is to dye them with Bad Azz bait dye in purple, cerise, pink, or chartreuse. Keep in mind this dye will stain everything, so it is best to use a small amount and use disposable containers.
Twitching jigs is another technique that will catch a lot of chums, as well as a coho or two that are still lingering in the river system. Here again, there are two schools of thought, the first being twitching to holding fish in deep holes and structure. There is one spot on the Satsop river in Southwest Washington that is consistent each year. My son and I try to venture to this river every November when the coho are still in the system and the chums are just arriving. This one spot is a deep water slough that sits just off of a bend in the river with strong current. Fish, both chums and coho, stack up here, and we break out the twitching rods. On one trip, we invited a friend who had just moved from Texas and had never caught a salmon before. Chums are a great fish for these types of trips. My son Ryan cast a twitching jig into this backwater and showed our friend Chris how to twitch. Then Chris cast the line, and on the second twitch of his first ever cast for salmon, he hooked a huge buck. As the fish dove deep back into the hole, he looked at us and yelled, “this ain’t trout fishing!”. We hooked and landed several more fish that day, all on jigs, either floated or twitched.
Spinners need to be ranked as one of the top techniques for chums, as they catch a lot of fish. It is hard to describe to an angler who has never used spinners before what it is like to hook a chum on one. Casting out into a run and letting the spinner flutter and work its way across as you reel in, feeling the telltale “thump-thump” of the blade working, then, all of a sudden, the rod almost gets ripped out of your hands as a chums grabs the spinner and takes off. Again, use bright colors, such as a size 5 Blue Fox Vibrax with a chartreuse body and silver blade. Hot orange and pink also work really well.
Like spinners, the spoon bite can be a lot of fun. In Alaska, I don’t think you will find an angler’s tacklebox without a few pixie spoons in it. Gold body with a pink or red center work well. Of course, Dardevle is synonymous with spoons, and the trusty red and white striped Dardevle works well, but so do bright greens, pinks, and reds. Spoon fishing is much like spinner fishing, except you do want some current with the spoons, where spinners can be cast out into deep holes and reeled in. Swinging spoons is just that- cast out and take up the slack, and then let the spoon swing across the river to holding or moving fish.
Lastly, big, gnarly chums like big, gnarly p lugs. A MagLip 5.0, or a K15-Kwikfish in bright colors either being back bounced or just simply plunked will catch chums. You can elect to wrap the plugs or just use some Pro-Cure Super Gel in herring, anchovy, or garlic, as it will stick to the plugs very well. Back bouncing them down a deep hole is a log of fun and a great way to catch fish. If there is enough current, then pulling them in a traditional way also works well. It is a great technique for the newer angler if the person on the helm or oars knows how to pull plugs. Simply put them out, place the rod into the holder, and then put your hands in your pockets. Wait until the rod loads up with a fish, and then put that drag on the reel to work.
Regardless of which technique you use, just remember that these fish need to go upriver to make more fish. Try to get the fish in quickly and then release it after you let it rest and rejuvenate. Some will argue with me that chums are good to eat, and to that I will remind readers; “to each their own”. For me personally, I would rather stock my freezer with coho for the barbecue and catch chums for the fun. They are big, aggressive, and put up a heck of a fight, and that is all I need to put them at the top of the list as one of the most fun salmon to catch.