Like finding love, salmon and steelhead just hadn’t happened for me yet.
I’d chased kokanee and landlocked Chinooks plenty of times. I’d trolled for ocean salmon. I’d even unintentionally snagged a few massive kings in the Columbia on the worst guided fishing trip of my life.
But never once had I caught an anadromous salmon in a river or stream, nor had I really had a desire to do so until one fateful moment last winter when a friend showed me a picture of a chum salmon …
It was a lifelong dream. I’d only had it for a year or so, but it was something so purely me that I knew it would’ve been a lifelong dream had I discovered it buried within my subconscious sooner.
His picture of Oncorhynchus keta was fierce enough to put Beyonce on notice. Its jagged teeth, three-toned coloration dripping off of its body like war paint and the devil-may-care attitude shined through in the picture, making the fish look, well, bad ass.
As he told me stories of epic runs, I knew I had to try chasing these beasts.
Nonetheless, I’d never done the salmon thing and figured that, like love, the elusive chum salmon was out of my reach for the time-being.
Fast-forward to October of this year when I noticed the Instagram of my friend, Kayla Lockhart (@kayla_lockhart), slowly begin to fill up with images of these gorgeous fish.
Suddenly, the dream was within my grasp again.
I asked her the tired series of journalistic questions: When? Where? How? and quickly learned that only two rivers in Oregon sustain fishable chum runs.
Dozens of Oregon rivers held (and still hold, in theory) chum runs, though they are so miniscule and under-researched that these runs are effectively nonexistent today.
Chasing the world’s most widespread salmon in the world’s southernmost viable chum fishery is not without rules, though. A short, catch-and-release season runs in the late fall, and I could see my time was running short.
The torrential rains that plague Oregon’s coast during the winter complicated my plans, but I knew I was going to jump in with both feet in 2017. I’d already done that with less important goals like going to the gym again or buying a house.
No, I was going to chase chums before the season closed.
I set a date and arrived at my brother’s house in Corvallis. We were still hours from the fish, but his apartment was a lot closer than my native Klamath Falls. My brothers will occasionally fish with me in nice weather conditions, but they don’t share my obsession, so when Gabe agreed to go “chumming” with me, hours from home, in the pouring rain, with only a slight chance of success, I was pleasantly surprised.
We hopped in the car and drove.
We struck out fishing the bridge right-of-way under the highway, though we could see fish splashing.
Our next stop took us deep into the temperate rainforest miles from the ocean. As we saw a likely spot devoid of both parked cars and visible anglers, we jumped out of the car, threw on raingear, and made our way to the water.
Two anglers had been hidden from sight, but the friendly Oregon State students shared tips as they relinquished the spot, blaming studying for their departure.
Since we lacked the eggs and bobbers that most people seemed to be using, I opted instead for the gear I usually catch big trout on.
Though treble hooks are allowed in this fishery (we were frustrated to see people intentionally snagging fish), I decided to tie on a lure more suited for the task: a swimbait.
Gabe spent some time fishing before switching to his camera and taking in the scenery.
We were delighted when a bobcat crept up to the shoreline and tried to catch a chum of its own. Gabe suddenly had a new focus, though his lens wasn’t suited to shoot across the river.
The bobcat distracted me as I cast again and again with automatic reflex.
Then, as my swimbait sat in the current, something big slammed it.
It was on for maybe five or six seconds before a big head shake threw the hook. We hopped spots, changed clothes, grabbed lunch and more appropriate gear and came back, this time targeting the aggressive fish near where the bobcat had shared our frustrations and lack of success earlier in the day.
A big male chum swung at my pink jig and missed. I watched it happen right in front of me as the fish spun in the crystal-clear water and sunk the jig into it’s dorsal fin in one fluid moment of fury.
I landed the fish several minutes later and took a picture, but it didn’t quite carry the satisfaction I’d hoped for.
It wasn’t until later that evening, when the light had all but fled the sky, and I had told Gabe “last cast” more than a dozen times but actually meant it with my long, arcing toss that a big, spawned-out hen crushed my jig.
The fight was nothing like the buck. The fish was old and probably less than a week from death, but it was hooked cleanly in the mouth. Gabe took some photos, and I released it with the starry-eyed wonder of a man who’d just done something truly worthwhile.