Chum salmon returning to South Sound streams

Chum salmon, one of five species of Pacific salmon, are starting to return to their natal streams in the South Sound and Hood Canal.
Chum salmon, one of five species of Pacific salmon, are starting to return to their natal streams in the South Sound and Hood Canal. Staff file, 2013

Perhaps no creature is more emblematic of the Pacific Northwest than the salmon.

The celebrated and savory fish, famous for its migration from fresh water to salt water and back again, has always been a focus of fascination.

Fall is the perfect time of year for you and your kids to get a first-hand view of a pivotal point in the salmon life cycle, when mature fish hustle home to spawn, or reproduce, and die.

In the South Puget Sound, you don’t have to go far to reach the banks of a stream or river where you may be able to see (and smell) salmon.

Of the five types of Pacific salmon — chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye — wild chum are among the most abundant in Washington. Scientifically known as Oncorhynchus keta, chum also are nicknamed ‘dog salmon’ because of the toothy looks of mature males, and sometimes ‘calico,’ for the uneven spots of color the fish display when spawning.

Chum don’t get much respect, in contrast to chinook salmon, the most prized, largest and delicious of the five species. Even so, chum are commercially important — often marketed frozen and labeled keta — and are increasingly targeted by sports fishermen.

708,680 The estimated number of chum salmon forecast to return to the South Sound and Hood Canal this fall and winter.

It’s pretty easy to find chum salmon in the rocky beds of the tributary creeks of the Puyallup River, such as Swan Creek in the 373-acre park that straddles the Tacoma city limits and is managed by Metro Parks Tacoma and Pierce County. Swan Creek occasionally hosts chinook and coho, but the most consistent spawners are chum. The Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail between Olympia and Shelton is another good location to see spawning chum.

Yvonne Shevalier, a fish biologist who coordinates Metro Parks’ CHIP-in! volunteer program, has guided lots of children through their first exposure to migrating salmon. The colors of the fish, their size and the thrashing around as males jockey for position: all are a focus of intrigue for kids, she says.

There’s also the ‘ick’ factor of the stink, which youngsters can’t help but notice. Depending on the size of the run, rotting fish carcasses may litter the side of the stream. So expect a chorus of “Oh, gross!” combined with a simultaneous pinching of nostrils.

According to Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe, most spawning activity takes place at night. Salmon, he says, are highly sensitive; the vibration of footsteps alongside a creek can disturb them. But if you’re very patient and willing to stand still for a long time, possibly hours, you might be able to see male fish fight or couples pair off.

The tribe’s biologists frequently shepherd children around salmon streams. Common questions asked include:

“Why do salmon die after spawning?”

Ladley says the dead fish are like fertilizer, containing nutrients that support the entire watershed food web, nurturing future salmon as well as other critters.

“Why are they so beat-up looking?”

“It’s a long, rough ride,” Ladley says, from the ocean to places like Swan Creek. In the final migration, Puget Sound chum typically swim 50 or 100 miles home from the ocean. The fish put the last of their energy into their sperm and eggs. The males fight over the females; “that’s one of the reasons they’re so beat up.”

“How much do they weigh?”

The males are bigger: 10-15 pounds. The females weigh 8-12 pounds.

“Which are the males and which are females?”

Mature males display vicious-looking hooked snouts and teeth. By the time chum return to fresh water, both males and females have lost the silvery sheen they sported in the ocean. Dominant males turn olive or gray, with irregular vertical bars — Ladley calls them “tiger stripes” — of maroon and black. In contrast, females flaunt horizontal black stripes.

Many mature chum are 2 feet long, so they’re easily visible in shallow water. In Swan Creek, one place to watch is from the footbridge near the north end of the park.

The fish typically return to Swan Creek between mid-November and mid-January, with the peak of the run in December. So it makes sense that the Friends of the Swan Creek Watershed, a conservation advocacy group, hosts Salmon Saturday, a welcome celebration for the fish each December.


Salmon Saturday

WHAT: A celebration for migrating chum salmon.

WHEN: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 12.

WHERE: Swan Creek Park. Enter at the north end, 2820 Pioneer Way E.

COST: Free.

INFORMATION: 253-472-7264, swancreek@prodigy.net.