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Chum Salmon
Issue 7 Number 3

Fall, 2009


The Original Online Magazine Dedicated Exclusively to the International Angler

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This fish delivers!  

This fish delivers everything a flyfisher could possibly ask for. The best part is, when the run is on there are plenty of them to catch in many Alaskan rivers!

Dan says "Wow".
Our Cessna Caravan float plane was stuffed with fishing equipment, 60 lbs. of my camera gear and eight other wide-eyed anglers as we lifted off the airstrip at King Salmon, Alaska, swung left, and resolutely new north. We climbed quickly to 1500 feet and leveled off. The steady drone of the plane’s engine set a steadfast tempo for my dancing imagination as I pushed against the window, my eyes strangely soothed by the sight of such a demanding environment - as formidable as any part of Alaska offers up.

Below, patchwork pillows of tundra stitched with milk white lichens, sweetgale, crow berry and luethea glided endlessly by. Like huge saucers full of water, hundreds of shallow lakes mottled the gently rolling landscape, faithfully mirroring Alaska’s pale blue shy. It was a congruous scene, some lakes choked with lily pads, sparingly dotted with odd numbers of trumpeter swans. Erratic paths cut by grazing moose visibly scared other lakes, with darker bottoms.

The passengers, their faces also pressed against the plane’s windows, stared as benignly as I, apparently equally enthralled by the complete dissimilarity of it all. "Not like New Jersey is it"? I asked the gentleman next to me. "No." "Nor like anyplace else I’ve seen before." I nodded in agreement having been here many other times, but my heart always reacted by pounding a little harder whenever I came back to see it again.

This time I’d come especially to meet chum salmon, an adversary many anglers seasoned in Alaska appreciate privately more often than publicly. Why? Who knows, perhaps others would rather chums remained a private secret All I can tell you is a chum is one hot fish at the end of any fishing gear.

Two feet out of a violent spray of water came a shining protrusion more like a chromed chain saw gone berserk than some ordinary fish stung by a hook

As the pilot throttled back slightly to begin our descent I could see our destination on the horizon, threading it’s way across the land, glistening like a neon snake.

The Branch River is so named because it slices haphazardly across the tundra, randomly creating dozens of interconnected passages. Veterans of Bristol Bay’s remarkable fish factories also know the Branch River as The Alagnak, clearly, one of the most productive rivers on earth. Our guide, Walt Grau, was already waiting at the dock when we stepped off the floatplane. A warm handshake later and we were introduced to Chris Jacklin, an amicable and capable hostess who ushered my roommate, Dan Compeau, and I to our quarters. With our duffels draped over both shoulders, Walt quickly came to the point "What do you want to fish for today". Are the chums in?’ I asked immediately. "Yea. Big time." Walt retorted. I heaved a delighted sigh and added, "When can we get started?" "As soon as you’re ready." Walt chimed. "Do you have 8-wt. rods and sink tip lines?" "Yes," Dan and I harmonized. "See you at the boat in ten minutes."

We moved downstream, toward water still influenced by the Pacific’s immense tides to look for ocean fresh chums. The river curved easily along, occasionally taking a sharp turn against a high cut bank and then spreading into wider, shallower stretches Near a broad, quick run Walt slowed our boat and dropped the anchor on a submerged gravel bar where the river’s current split to either side. "I’ve seen a number of chums in here the last few days." Walt recalled. "I suggest we wade from here and work the edges of both channels with these streamer pattern." He handed us each a neatly tied streamer fashioned with brightly dyed marabou. Installed on 6-ft. 1X leaders we were as ready as anyone could be. Hiroshi Hasegawa, our other boat companion, moved in first, Dan following. As they got into position, Walt and I simultaneously saw the first chum break the surface - right where Walt expected to see them. One then two, then dozens of other fish appeared on both our flanks,

"Make a 40-ft. cast and let it sink." Walt recommended. "When the fly passes in front of the fish on the swing you should expect a strike." Dan obliged, deftly placing one of Walt’s streamer creations for chums at the edge of the current break.

"Now, let it swing steadily." Walt advised. Dan complied, then the line stopped with a deliberate jolt. Dan reacted immediately, raising the rod hard. Two feet out of a violent spray of water came a shining protrusion more like a chromed chain saw gone berserk than some ordinary fish stung by a hook. Heavy, deep bodied, incredibly powerful the fresh chum leapt repeatedly as if enraged at an insolent attempt at beeping it from it’s mission - all the while convincingly attempting to reduce Dan’s fly rod to shattered black splinters of graphite fiber, Later, on a tougher fish, that would happen. Dan hung on, bowing obediently to the embroiled fish’s runs and fierce thrashings against the air. He struggled to seize control steadily working it out of the river’s flow into shallower water, constantly maintaining pressure against the big chum’s panic-stricken surges.

Ten minutes later, Walt waded into help Dan release the big chum - I puppied along, cameras dangling precariously over the water, directing my subjects to gather up for a portrait. After all, this was Dan’s first Alaskan fishing experience, and, his first big chum. "What do you think of these brutes?’ I had to ask, probing for a new verb. Silence; accompanied by Dan’s shaking head was his response - then a solemn,’Wow’.

That done, it was Hiroshi’s turn, then Dan’s, then they both had fish on at the same time. Soon, we mastered the technique and regularly had fresh chums battering our bodies and equipment - save Walt, who seemed entirely content watching three grown men turn into sapling boys again, replete with the smiles of our bygone youth’s finest follies. We were into them all right - big time! The scenario continued unabated until the run swam through. We returned to the boat and motored upstream for several miles until we found them again, a group of about a thousand fish, parked in a shallow, mud bottomed area next to the main now. They were going through a mock spawning ritual, preparing for the task they would complete later, many miles upstream - propagation.

On the Alagnak, chums are as aerial as the highly touted silver salmon are, and run just as hard, if not better. Comparably sized, a typical Branch River chum is over ten pounds - enough bulk to bend most graphite to design limits.

We talked animatedly as we sat down to dinner that evening, watching the butter colored sun dip quietly towards the tree tops across the river, We caught and released more than 40 bright chums that day, ah Olympic Class swimmers and virtuoso acrobats. After years of fishing Alaska, I thought I couldn’t imagine a finer way to start an Alaskan fishing trip - fine companions, a river full of fish and an endless sunset medicating the mental bruises relentlessly inflicted on me by "civilized" life.

Chums are known by other names - dog salmon, calicos, and less commonly, fall or autumn salmon. Their characteristically large, canine-like teeth, prominent in full spawning phase may explain its dog salmon nickname, and the fact that native Alaskans often fed their dogs with them. Not that they aren’t palatable to humans, mind you, they’re as delicious as any other Pacific salmon, most people honestly couldn’t taste a difference.

Chums live in the majority of Alaska’s coastal waters from the far northern waters of the Bering Sea to Southeast Alaska. The size of any chum run varies from river to river, but wherever you find them, they’re powerful adversaries on any kind of tackle. As chums prepare for actual spawning they undergo a dramatic change, transforming from bright silver, taking on an envelope of broad, gaudy, striped markings in purple, red and various shades of pink, vertically painted over a field of olive-green. Any way you get them they’re an impressive sight. In full spawning form males develop a distinctive kype, wild and forbidding in appearance with dozens of sharp teeth. Females are less abstractly marked, somewhat smaller, and less portentous than their partners.

On the Alagnak, chums are as aerial as the highly touted silver salmon are, and run just as hard, if not better. Comparably sized, a typical Branch River chum is over ten pounds - enough bulk to bend most graphite to design limits.

The Alagnak’s first chum run begins to show the last days of June, a few days after sockeye salmon begin their run. Some will begin to turn their distinctive multi-banded colors before entering fresh water; others remain mint bright until they’ve been in fresh water for a few days. The Alagnak’s initial chum run represents roughly five to 10 percent of the entire run, with the second run starting shortly after the first The total run is around 500,000 fish, enough to keep most anglers rather busy for an entire season.

Walt Grau knows chums; he spent years developing effective fly patterns for taking them. Guiltlessly, we happily sacrificed many of them to the mutilations of the Alagnak’s chum run. When I asked what he called his remarkably effective flies he solemnly said "I never named them, they’re just...well...chum flies," We agreed that every great fly needs a name, since Walt’s creation is as colorful and flamboyant as they come, we unanimously agreed that most suitable name would be "Grau’s Drag Queen". Effective as Walt’s chum flies are, in the right places, chums will even grab surface flies like pink mice or poppers.

Spin fishing seems to be dead even with fly fishing in terms of overall productivity. Walt notes that "Chums don’t respond well to lure movement - a slow steady swing is clearly the most effective presentation technique." The bubble and fly method works well, fished down river, the fly between one and one-half to two feet below the bubble. In water less than two feet deep, only six inches separating a fly from a bubble is often enough. However, chums don’t stay in water that shallows for very long.

Tube flies, a traditional British fly used for Atlantic salmon, have proven to be very effective on chums Walt uses them frequently, citing the advantage of being able to replace the hooks if they become damaged. The actual fly slides on the leader, resting on the eye of the hook when fished.

Walt’s tube fly patterns can be effectively fished on either fly or spinning gear; the most important factor is color. On the Alagnak, pink and cerise are the two principal colors that trigger a chum’s aggressive nature. Years ago, on a tributary of the Fish River, 80 miles east of Nome, I witnessed chums consistently chase a fly over 30 feet to grab it. In the sparkling clear water of this remote little stream I permanently put to rest the false notion that chums do not come to a fly well. At the time, knowing I was miles from anything "civilized," discovering that single attribute served as foundation enough for my personal affection for chums.

Whether it’s the Alagnak, the lovely Klokerblok, or any Alaskan river or stream, if chums are present go after them. Any excuse would be no excuse at all - now that you know about the right technique and equipment The only other thing to consider is a couple of weeks of curls in a weight room, pumping up for the action.

Copyright, 1999 by Tony Oswald All rights reserved - This article or the images that accompany it may not be copied or distributed by any means, mechanical or electronic without permission from the author.

Tie these flies, catch fish...

Grau’s Drag Queen

Hook - Long shank Nos. 2 or 4, 3X long ringed eye hook.
Thread - Red mono cord, pre-waxed or red Kevlar thread.
Underbody - Fuse wire.
Tail - Optional but if desired, marabou fibers, same as body.
Ribbing - Oval tinsel or Amnesia monofilament for strength and durability.
Body - Red fluorescent chenille or Glo-Bug yam.
Wing - Marabou: Cerise for gray days with broken light Pink for bright days.
Overwing - 10-15 strands of purple flashabou and a touch of red Crystal Hair.

Tube Fly

Tube - Plastic for shallow water, brass for deeper, swifter water. Approximately 3/16-inch diameter brass tubing is available from hobby shops. This tubing is used for fuel lines on gas driven models. Tubes should be about 2 inches long when cut. Use a hacksaw to cut them and then remove any burrs from the inside and outside of the tubes. Tie the materials directly onto one end of the tube. Plastic tubing can be formed from swizzle sticks or empty ink pen tubes.
Body Materials - Same as for Grau’s Drag Queen but substitute Crystal Hair for flashabou, tied "in the round."
Hooks - Number 1, 2 or 4 ringed eye saltwater hooks.
When finished, slide the tube fly up onto the leader and attach the hook by tying a snell knot.

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