Whenever I see Rodney Dangerfield doing his "I just don't get no respect"
shtick, I am always reminded of chum salmon (also known as "dog salmon").
Such a pairing may seem odd, but like Rodney, chum salmon just don't get
no respect. Consider the following examples.
The visiting angler was thrilled to have just landed his first salmon,
and paused for a moment to admire the exceptional beauty of the fish.
A six pound male, the sides of the fish were splashed with sunset colors
of red and purple, while the ventral third of its body was jet black accented
with snow white tips on the fins. A seasoned local angler who was offended
by this simple act of appreciation walked over, kicked the fish, said
"I wouldn't feed that thing to my dogs," and his duty done went back to
fishing. That fish was a chum salmon.
While this incident occurred many years ago in Alaska, it could easily
have happened last fall in our state. It is the norm for local sport anglers
specifically fishing for chum salmon to tell everyone around them that
they are really trying to catch some other kind of fish. Upon landing
a hard fighting chum salmon, many feel obliged to offer a comment to anyone
within hearing like, "Its only a crummy dog salmon." Peer pressure is
largely responsible for this kind of behavior. Several years ago, I saw
an angler hook a chum salmon in a heavily fished hole on the Humptulips
River. Fishing had been slow, and the crowd was excited that a fish had
been hooked -- until it was identified as a chum salmon. Immediately,
the surrounding anglers began loudly barking like dogs. In spite of the
fact that the fish had fought as well as any other salmon of its size,
the "lucky" angler had no choice but to make a derogatory remark about
the fish and throw it back.
It hasn't always been this way. The legends of the Chehalis people tell
of the spirit Honne, who came to earth and created the people
and the animals. Honne made the different kinds of salmon and
told each the streams they would inhabit and the seasons of their lives.
For the chum salmon, Honne reserved a special status:
"Honne said, 'You will be the chief of the fish. Your name is Klahwhi, dog salmon. This is as far as you will travel up the
river. You will come up the river quickly and go back quickly. Your life
will be short.' And Honne gave the fish a striped blanket, which
was made of cedar bark and dyed with alder. That is the coat of colors
which the fish still wears."
Honne came to earth a long time ago, in the beginning of the
world. However, even today you will seldom hear of a tribal fisher making
disparaging comments about Klahwhi, the chum salmon. The legends
of Honne can be found in the book, Honne: The Spirit of the
Chehalis, by Katherine Van Winkle Palmer, W.F. Humphrey Press, Geneva
N.Y. 1925. To read more stories about how Honne created Klahwhi and the other types of salmon click
Since many people seem to believe that the chum salmon is a somewhat
disreputable member of the salmon tribe, we need to ask if there are any
reasons why these fish deserve our respect. In other words, what have
chum salmon done for us lately?
If we consider only naturally produced fish, the most abundant salmon
in Washington State are chum salmon. In case you missed that - chum
salmon are the most abundant wild salmon in our state! This
is probably the best kept "secret" in the salmon business. In the five-year
period 1994-1998, over 6.5 million wild chum salmon returned to Washington
waters. Of that total, approximately 6.2 million wild chum returned to
Puget Sound and over 300,000 were destined for coastal streams. Given
the very real problems faced by wild fish and the recent tales about the
supposed imminent demise of all wild salmon, these chum returns are pretty
Chum salmon are also very successful at a number of hatcheries, although
they seldom receive the emphasis provided to chinook and coho salmon.
The majority of hatchery chum programs are located in the Puget Sound
region; producing fish from WDFW, tribal, and federal facilities. The
return of hatchery-origin chum for the above 5 years (1994-1998) was nearly
2.6 million fish. Combine the wild and hatchery returns for those 5 years
and the total is over 9 million fish, or an average annual return of more
than 1.8 million chum.
But, you say, even though this sounds like a lot of fish, there must
have been many more in the "good old days." Well, that statement is certainly
true for the Columbia River system, which has only remnant chum salmon
runs. The picture is quite different, however, for the coast and Puget
Sound. The only salmon numbers available from the "good old days' are
the total numbers of fish harvested. For Puget Sound, as an example, when
we examine chum harvest numbers over the last ninety years, we find that
the 1988 Puget Sound catch (commercial and tribal fisheries) of 1.62 million
chum was the fourth highest ever. In fact, it is necessary to go back
to 1916 to find a Puget Sound chum harvest larger than the 1988 catch.
The 3 years from 1914 through 1916 achieved all-time high single year
chum harvests, ranging from 1.69 to 1.88 million fish.
One or two high harvest years may show impressive totals, but a longer
span of years is a more meaningful overall measurement of the status of
fish production. A better way to evaluate Puget Sound chum salmon is to
see how a recent 10 year period of harvest compares to the all time highest
10 years of total harvest. Since the collection of catch statistics was
begun in 1913, the highest 10 year period of harvest of Puget
Sound chum salmon was 12,147,900 total fish caught from 1985 through 1994! This recent span of years barely edged out the combined harvests between
1914 and 1923 (12,134,600) for the highest decade of Puget Sound chum
With a 1.62 million catch in 1988 and the highest ever 10 year catch
occurring from 1985 to 1994, it seems obvious that for Puget Sound chum
salmon the "good old days" are now. A similar opinion was recently presented
in a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) review of the coast-wide
status of chum salmon. In the 1997 report, NMFS stated that Puget Sound
chum salmon current status "is at or near historic levels".
These large chum harvests support many commercial and tribal fisheries,
but what about sport fisheries? Chum salmon are usually dismissed as sport
fish: "This species is not readily caught by anglers either in the ocean
or in freshwater." This quote appears in Inland Fishes of Washington by Wydoski and Whitney (1979), and is typical of the kind of statements
usually made about the sporting qualities of chum salmon. But, is it true
that chum salmon are not readily caught in sport fisheries?
If we check the WDF Sport Catch Reports for the years 1991 through 1997,
we will find that annually only 4,300 to 12,600 sport caught chum salmon
were reported from the marine waters of the state. There has always been
a problem with anglers not recognizing bright chum salmon caught in salt
waters, but even if twice the reported numbers were actually caught, these
are low sport catch numbers for years of near record chum returns. But,
chum salmon do bite in estuaries and marine waters! New fishing techniques
are being developed and salt water chum sport fisheries are growing rapidly,
representing a major recreational fishing opportunity that is just waiting
to be "discovered". Certainly, the discovery has already been made at
Hoodsport Hatchery on Hood Canal, where hundreds of chum anglers cause
traffic jams trying to get to the fish.
What about freshwater sport fisheries for chum salmon? Based on the 1991
through 1997 sport catch reports, major chum fisheries occur in the Nooksack,
Skagit, Snohomish, Nisqually, Humptulips, and Satsop rivers. The Satsop
River chum fishery is one of the most popular in the state. During the
month of November, it is difficult to find a parking spot and anglers
are shoulder to shoulder in the better fishing holes. Reported sport harvests
for the Satsop have ranged up to a high of 3,500 chum salmon caught and
kept (in 1993). I have frequently participated in this fishery and have
observed that roughly nine out of ten chum landed are released by Satsop
anglers. If my unofficial "creel census" is close to being right, the
1993 reported harvest of 3,500 Satsop chum salmon (retained by anglers)
is actually only a small fraction of a sport catch (including released
fish) that may have exceeded 30,000 fish! The Satsop chum are supporting
a monster sport fishery, the magnitude of which is not fully recognized.
All freshwater chum sport fisheries are characterized by the releases
of significant percentages of the fish landed (although it is likely that
the release rates vary from river to river). This means that chum salmon
are a much more important contributor to many of our freshwater sport
fisheries than is indicated only by fish harvested, and that the earlier
quote that chum are "not readily caught by anglers" is simply not true.
Let's review. Chum salmon are the most abundant wild salmon in Washington
State. With the exception of the Columbia River, they are returning at
levels equivalent to the "good old days." Chum salmon are providing commercial
and tribal harvests of over 1 million fish each year. Freshwater sport
fisheries are catching chum salmon numbering in the tens of thousands,
if we include the fish that are released, and marine area sport fisheries
are growing rapidly.
I don't know about Rodney Dangerfield, but chum salmon most certainly
deserve our RESPECT!