“I went to see a psychiatrist. He told me I was crazy. I told him I wanted to get a second opinion. He said, ‘OK, you’re ugly, too.’ I don’t get no respect, no respect at all.” -Rodney Dangerfield
If salmon cared about such things, chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) would feel like Rodney Dangerfield -disrespected. I don’t understand why, either – chums are big, aggressive, colorful, hard-fighting fish. Just awesome. During July they pour into many Alaskan rivers by the thousands, procreation on their minds.
The name chum salmon comes from the Chinook Indian term tzum, meaning “spotted” or “marked.” Chums are also known as dog salmon, supposedly because of the pronounced teeth on males, which are reminiscent of the canine teeth of dogs.
“Chum.” “Dog.” Such un-noble names for such a noble beast. I suggest another name, one more fitting because of the striped coloration and the aggressive attitude of these fish. From here on out, we’re calling them tiger salmon.
A female adult tiger salmon deposits her eggs in gravel beds (called redds) in the main stem and feeder streams of the Alaskan rivers. Once the eggs are fertilized by the male tiger salmon, the embryos will incubate in the gravel over the winter months and then hatch into alevins in late winter.
In the alevin’s phase of life the tiger salmon take on a strange appearance, having large eyes, a balloon-like orange belly sack, and a thin, pencil-like body. Approximately four months after becoming an alevin the young tiger salmon change into a fry. A tiger salmon fry averages an inch in length, has a salmon-like body, and is free swimming. At this point it works its way out of the gravel.
A newly emerged tiger fry becomes a smolt almost immediately, migrating to the ocean without delay (unlike the king, coho and sockeye salmon, who spend a year or two in fresh water). The tiger smolts will stay at sea for three to five years before maturing into an adult tiger salmon. Then the mature female and male salmon will begin their journey back to the Goodnews, where the female tiger salmon will deposit her bounty of eggs, the male will fertilize them, and both will die, continuing the cycle of life.
We already stated that the tigers pour into rivers by the thousands during the month of July. They rest in the larger eddies in those rivers, hundreds of fish rolling and flashing together in their favorite locations. While these spots remain consistent from year to year, they will change over the course of a season. In other words, last week’s hotspot may be devoid of fish this week. Now they’re holding somewhere else. Your guide’s job is to take you to them.
While tigers will hit hardware, fly fishing works much better. The fish prefer striking smaller baits, and flies fit the bill. Most fly fishers use standard eight-weight outfits with floating lines for these fish, but spey rods, sinking lines, and larger and smaller outfits also work. Make sure you have 100 yards of backing on your reel. You will need it for the tigers.
When choosing your outfit keep in mind that if fishing from a boat you may have to pull the fish upstream, against the current. The first time I tried to do this I snapped a ten-weight. Since you have to fight both the fish and the stream sometimes, it may be wise to err on the side of caution.
Leaders are seven to nine feet long, tapered to a point from ten to fifteen pounds.
Many kinds of flies will work on tigers, everything from weighted, articulated streamers to glo-bugs, most frequently tied on size 2 or 4 salmon hooks. What most have in common are cerise, orange, purple, and/or chartreuse colors, lots of flash, and strong hooks. Popular materials include marabou, Arctic fox, and bunny strip. Most will have a bead head or a lead eye to get them to sink in the current.
Tigers fresh into the river, still in the tidal areas, can often be convinced to take a flyrod popper, absolutely the most exciting way to fish for them. The fish have to be bright, though. Once they move upstream and color up, fishing poppers just wastes your time.
When the bite comes, strip strike, then raise the rod tip. Expect the fish to take some line. Expect some hard, bulldog-like tactics. Don’t expect much in the way of jumping, though. Tigers don’t leave the water voluntarily.
During the meat of the run, in late July, you will be on fish more or less continually – world-class, exhausting fishing. Expect to be played out yourself after fighting ten to fifteen-pound fish all day. And you’ll notice in the photos, no one looks particularly sad to have caught a tiger. This fish will put a smile on your face.
Can We Eat Them?
Strictly speaking, you can eat most any fish. Tigers are netted commercially at sea, where they are prime. Bright males are quite good if eaten immediately. Bright males are also prime fish for the smoker. From a gustatory standpoint, once the salmon enter the river and start to color up their flesh deteriorates rapidly. So, enjoy the fight, marvel at the strength and colors, and release the fish. They will make more tigers that will return to the river a few years down the road.
If you can’t find it within you to call them tigers, try calling them keta salmon, which uses their proper, scientific name. Either way, Alaskan tiger salmon offer world-class fishing during most rivers’ least visited weeks. Tangle with these fish and you will quickly learn to appreciate their appeal.