North America is home to 5 species of pacific salmon. Pound for pound, the hardest fighting salmon species is the chum, also known as keta or dog salmon. Those who fly fish for chums regard them for their aggression towards bright flies and strong fights.
The chum salmon should be considered a prized sportfish, however, there is a negative old-school stigma still associated with them. This stigma has been passed down from the hunter-gatherer era; chums were given to camp dogs because their flesh is the least-preservable of the pacific salmon.
Brief Life History & Physical Description
Like all wild pacific salmon, chum are hardy fish. Their life cycle begins as they hatch from eggs and squirm their way out of the spawning gravel into the river’s current. Chum fry/smolts head directly towards sea after emerging. Once in the saltwater, chum hang around protected coastal areas for a few months before heading further into the ocean. Typically, they spend 3-4 years feeding at sea before reaching maturity. Upon returning to their natal watershed to spawn the average chum will weigh 10-13 pounds or more, making them the second largest of the pacific salmon. The IGFA world record chum was caught off the coast of British Columbia in 1995 and weighed 35 lbs!
In saltwater environments, chum have bright silver scales, white gum line with smoky colored tongues, and no spotting. Upon re-entering freshwater to spawn, chum quickly begin to lose this silvery appearance and phasing into their striped spawning appearance. Their infamous spawning appearance is described as calico; they present with a green/golden coloration, vertical maroon and black striping, and the anal fins have notable white tips. Along with the drastic color change, the canine-like teeth become very prominent – particularly so on the males.
What to Expect when Fishing for Chum
As we discussed about above, chums get a bad rap from the soft quality of the their meat – but they should get more respect from their tenacious fights once hooked. We predict chum fishing will be growing in popularity, just like fly fishing for carp has! Either way, any fly angler who has caught a chrome chum surely would do it again.
The pursuit of chums will on a remote Alaskan river, the Puget Sound, or a coastal river in northern Oregon, there is little doubt you are after a worthy fish. If you are using the right fishing techniques and go at the right time, chum can be some of the easiest fish to catch on the fly.
Expect a heavy eat: Once chum have entered freshwater, they become extremely aggressive and territorial prior to spawning. Anglers often find their flies just suddenly stop and won’t budge when a chum eats. It takes them a moment before they turn and run, which is why they feel so heavy.
Expect the strip-set: It’s not uncommon to watch the eat when fishing for chum! Some big males will ‘shark’ behind the fly trying to scare it out of their territory before engulfing it. Other times, fish will swim far from their lie just to crush a jigging fly. When this happens keep calm and strip-set! Some anglers can’t help trout setting, or lifting their rod tip, but it is a bad hookset habit to get into!
Expect the fight and headshakes: These burly salmon love to fight dirty! Depending on how ‘fresh’ the chum is, you’ll see different fighting tactics. Chrome chum, when in open water, are not afraid of blistering runs identical to a large king – which they frequently get confused with. Sometimes they get splashy with headshakes on the surface, but they hardly jump. ‘Older’ chums will test your dog fighting abilities and rough you up with powerful headshakes and rolls.
Expect to change flies: Weighted flies tied in bright and flashy colors are used for chum. Like fly fishing for coho, pink is the best fly color. That said, if you’ve found a school of chums and the action is slowing down, try the next fly color. From pink switch to purple or black next. Spey anglers catch them frequently on chartreuse flies too.
Expect to handle the fish with respect: Bring a net. Depending on the fishery, you could very well be handling twenty plus chums a day. While it is fun to catch so many fish, handle each fish with respect and please keep them wet. And watch your fingers when removing hooks, these fish have teeth!
Where to Look for Chums
In North America chum salmon range from California’s Sacramento River north to Alaska’s Kotzebue Sound. On the other side of the pacific, they range from Japan all the way up into Russia’s arctic.
Pink and chum salmon are unique in that they do not have to spawn in pure freshwater. In fact, many chums spawn in the tidewater zones of river mouths and estuary environments. This means that the bulk of the ‘chum run’ is typically concentrated in the lower parts of rivers. However, certain populations, like the Yukon River’s fall-run chum, are known for swimming 2,000 miles inland before spawning!
For the angler, chums are best targeted closer to the saltwater as they are most aggressive at this stage and are usually still chrome. They are commonly found in creeks and rivers of various gradients and characteristics, but they like to hold in blackwater and sloughs.
When to Fly Fish for Chums
Alaska: There are two runs of chums in Alaska; summer-run and fall-run. Some rivers see both runs of fish others just get one run of fish. The summer-run fish usually begin to show up in June and the fall-run fish begin to show up after mid July.
Oregon: Catch and release chum fishing in Oregon is usually allowed September 16th – November 15th. The northern coastal rivers see good fall returns if you know where to look!
Washington: Puget Sound sees chums returning in the fall with September – November being prime time. Chum returns are strongest on years opposite of the pink returns. This is the place to be for 20 pound chums!
What Set-Up to Fish for Chums
When fly fishing for chum salmon, whether you are fishing small coastal sloughs or large rivers carved across western Alaska, it is important to show up with the correct gear. Fortunately for chum anglers, one set up is all you will need for 99% of your chum fly fishing experiences – from Alaska down to Northern California.
A 8-9 weight will get the job done. While an 8 weight rod is perfect for most of your chum fishing, we gravitate towards a 9 weight finding that it can be beneficial in windy environments. Also, we prefer 9 wts for sockeye fishing and they are often in Alaskan rivers at the same time. Either way, and 8 wt or 9 wt will easily pick up and turnover the typical weight of a chum fly and give you plenty of backbone for getting these brawlers into the net.
FlyTramp recommendation: Scott Wave (9 wt)
Matching the weight of the reel with the rod goes a long ways in making your set-up more enjoyable to cast and giving it that balanced feel in the hand. When shopping for rods and reels larger than 7 weights we always recommend set ups that are saltwater friendly. This allows rods to be used at any fishing destination. Saltwater reels all have strong drag systems these days and are typically large will find their way into the backing!
FlyTramp recommendation: Sage Spectrum Max (7/8 or 9/10)
Since adult chum are only in freshwater for a short time, they don’t get “educated” like trout often do. This means that you can get away with much splasher casts – but subtle is always better. Additionally, chum flies are heavy. Due to this, fly lines designed with thicker front tapers are beneficial to help pick up and turn over flies when casting for chums. Floating lines are used the majority of the time but sink tips have their usefulness as well.
FlyTramp recommendation: Airflow Superflo Ridge 2.0 Streamer Max Short (8 wt or 9 wt line)
Leader & Tippet
Unlike spooky trout, long tapered leaders are not needed for chum fishing most of the time. In fact, more often than not guides just use straight 15-20 lb Maxima Ultragreen as a leader. We like 15 lb Maxima because the line diameter can still turnover flies easily but at the same time can break-off when snagged without hurting your fly line. Obviously, there are much skinnier leader/tippet materials rated at 15 lb but they do not turn-over flies well.
FlyTramp recommendation: Maxima Ultragreen
What flies to use for Chums
It is important to remember that chum, like all pacific salmon, only eat flies out of aggression or as a territorial response after entering freshwater rather than for the sake of nutrition. Below is a short comphresive list of our favorite chum flies – its a very similar list to our favorite coho flies. Hopefully soon we will post a deep-dive into the best chum flies.
FlyTramp 5 recommended Chum flies:
- Stinger Clouser
- String Leech
- Starlight Leech
- Hareball Leech
- Pink Kriller