My body was far away from South Puget Sound the past week, but my brain kept conjuring up memories of bad-tempered, sharp-toothed, eager-biting chum salmon.
One memory – of a super aggressive chum that cut a shark-like wake with its dorsal fin while it chased down my electric-green Wooly Bugger last October -- got my heart pounding while on a long, solo drive.
Another memory -– of the torpedo-like run of a chum salmon my friend Greg Cloud hooked on a golden October afternoon last year – made me smile.
Yeah, it’s that time of year when millions of chum salmon – 1.9 million is this year’s forecast – rumble along Puget Sound and Hood Canal beaches before storming upstream into just about every river and creek.
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Chum salmon don’t have the silvery class of coho or chinook salmon. Chums arrive in shades of olive, magenta and red – and they sport canine teeth that would be at home in the mouth of a pit bull.
But chums – like the hordes of pink salmon that kept rods bent this past summer -- have two beautiful facts going for them:
• These fish are biters – and will chase down flies, lures – and especially anchovies dead-drifted under a bobber in saltwater.
• There are a lot of them, and lots of fish means lots of bites. Using Greg Cloud’s method of fishing a sardine hanging straight down on a weighted leader under a big balsa bobber brings almost automatic hookups when a school of chum is found in saltwater.
You can learn more about Cloud’s chum salmon rig at www.theolympian.com/outdoors/
Chums are the perfect salmon for young anglers – or anglers who have never hooked a salmon.
They’re also perfect for fish-addled vets such as myself, as these fish are just fun to catch.
Most anglers believe that chums – a white-fleshed fish – aren’t as good to eat as coho or chinook, and I agree.
Many chums have already started the huge transformation from a chrome-bright ocean fish to a colorful fish that is ready to spawn. Salmon lose a lot of their flavor when their bodies change into spawning mode.
Some anglers put chum salmon fillets in the smoker, and the results can be fantastic.
I usually let all my chum salmon go, as I like to see the fish power away – and I love to see them crowding onto the spawning beds at the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail every November.
Truth is, I like watching salmon as much as catching salmon, and I suspect that is one more step down the slippery trail to geezerhood.
So be it.
Visiting the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail is like taking a trip to Alaska or Siberia or British Columbia. Thousands of chum jam into the creek, and visitors can easily see them fighting, gouging nests into gravel, mating – and dying.
The air carries the eye-watering ammonia reek of decaying fish, the clean scent of ocean fish and the sweet smell of cedar and Douglas fir trees.
All these scents are part of the elegant life cycle of these fish.
The chum salmon that roar into Kennedy Creek this fall left the stream as tiny, just-hatched fish three to five years ago.
The young salmon – millions of them – swam into Puget Sound and then migrated into the Northern Pacific Ocean. Most of the little fish became food for other fish, birds, seals, sea lions and whales, but enough chums beat the huge odds and return to the pristine little creek.
There, they lay eggs and then die – all of them. The decaying bodies are fertilizer for the forest, the river insects – and their own young.
Salmon bring the richness of the Pacific Ocean into the rain-washed, nutrient-poor forests of the Northwest.
It’s easy to feel pity – or even disgust – for the fungus-ridden, worn-out, almost-dead spawners, but these ultimate survivors are magnificent. They’ve eluded every predator – grew into big predators themselves – and beat incredible odds to make it back to the stream and spawn.
Memories of those fish – the worn-out chum that some call “boots” – shined the brightest in my mind during the past week.
Chester Allen: 360-754-4226