Chum Salmon Stories
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Chum salmon

By Jim Ames
(Updated from a 1992 Washington Department of Fisheries Newsletter article)

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 here.

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 remarkable.

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 harvest.

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!