Chum Salmon / Keta Salmon, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chum Salmon or Keta Salmon: Everything You Need to Know About Oncorhynchus keta

What are Chum Salmon?

Chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), also known as dog salmon or keta salmon, is an anadromous fish species belonging to the family Salmonidae. Chum salmon have a complex life cycle that includes various stages in freshwater and marine environments, ultimately returning to their natal rivers to spawn and complete the cycle. They are distributed across the northern Pacific Ocean, with populations ranging from Korea and Japan in the west to the coast of Alaska and British Columbia in the east.

Distribution and Habitat

Chum salmon inhabit a diverse array of habitats throughout their life cycle. Adults prefer the upper reaches of rivers and streams for spawning, with well-oxygenated gravel substrates and cool water temperatures. Juveniles use rivers’ small tributaries and side channels for rearing, taking advantage of slow-moving water and abundant cover. They transition into estuaries and coastal areas as they grow, eventually moving into the open ocean.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of chum salmon typically spans three to five years and can be broken down into six primary stages:

  1. Egg incubation
  2. Alevin development
  3. Fry emergence and rearing
  4. Smolt transformation and migration
  5. Ocean residency
  6. Spawning, migration and death

Keta salmon display a strong homing instinct, navigating thousands of miles through the ocean to return to their natal rivers for spawning. After depositing their eggs in gravel nests known as redds, the adults perish, providing a crucial nutrient subsidy to freshwater ecosystems.

Reproductive Behavior

Male chum salmon compete for access to females, exhibiting aggressive behaviour and displaying vivid coloration to establish dominance. Spawning occurs in the fall, with females selecting suitable sites to build their redds. After successful fertilization, the female covers the eggs with gravel and may guard the nest until she succumbs to exhaustion or predation.

Ecological Significance

Chum salmon are keystone species in their ecosystems, providing important ecological services at multiple trophic levels. They are the primary prey for marine and terrestrial predators, such as seals, sea lions, and bears. The marine phase of keta salmon aids in nutrient cycling and energy transfer between the ocean and freshwater ecosystems. Furthermore, their carcasses contribute to nutrient dynamics, supporting the growth of aquatic plants and invertebrates.

Threats and Conservation

Chum salmon populations face numerous challenges, including overfishing, habitat loss, and the effects of climate change. Warming water temperatures and shifts in ocean currents may alter chum salmon distribution, growth, and survival rates. Human-induced habitat alterations, such as dams and culverts, impede migration and disrupt spawning behaviours. Conservation efforts, including habitat restoration, sustainable fishing practices, and monitoring, are essential to ensure the long-term survival of chum salmon populations.

How to Catch Chum Salmon

Catching chum salmon can be an exciting and rewarding experience for anglers. Keta salmon are found in saltwater and freshwater environments as anadromous fish during different life cycle stages. To increase your chances of catching chum salmon, consider the following tips and techniques:

  1. Timing: Chum salmon return to their natal rivers to spawn, typically between late summer and early winter. The exact timing varies depending on the location, so it’s essential to research the specific run timing for the area you plan to fish.
  2. Location: Chum salmon are generally found in the lower sections of rivers and streams close to estuaries in freshwater environments. In saltwater environments, they can be found in coastal areas and bays. Research local fishing reports and talk to experienced anglers to identify productive fishing spots.
  3. Gear: Select the appropriate equipment for the environment and type of fishing. Use a medium-heavy to heavy-action spinning or baitcasting rod and reel combo for saltwater fishing. For freshwater fishing, a medium to medium-heavy action rod is suitable. Spool your reel with a 15-30 pound test monofilament or braided line, depending on the size of the fish and water conditions.
  4. Tackle: Chum salmon can be caught using a variety of lures and bait. Popular lure choices include spoons, spinners, jigs, and plugs. Fly fishing can also be effective, using streamers, egg-sucking leech patterns, or egg patterns. Sometimes, using cured salmon eggs or fresh roe can be a successful bait option.
  5. Technique: When using lures, cast across or slightly downstream and retrieve the lure with a steady or erratic motion, depending on the type. Fly fishing for chum salmon typically involves casting across and slightly upstream, allowing the fly to drift naturally through the current. When using bait, drift fishing or float fishing techniques can be effective in naturally presenting the bait.
  6. Observe regulations: Before fishing for chum salmon, familiarize yourself with local regulations, which may include catch limits, size restrictions, and specific fishing seasons. Always follow the rules and practice responsible fishing to help protect and conserve chum salmon populations.

Remember that chum salmon can be aggressive during their spawning phase, and their willingness to strike lures and flies can make them an exhilarating target for anglers. Be patient, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different techniques and tackle to find what works best for you.

Is Chum Salmon Good to Eat?

Chum salmon are safe and healthy to eat, as they are a good source of high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. The omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been linked to numerous health benefits, such as improved cardiovascular health, reduced inflammation, and enhanced cognitive function.

However, as with any fish, it is essential to consider the potential risks associated with the consumption of chum salmon. One concern is the presence of contaminants, such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins, which can accumulate in fish tissue. These contaminants can harm human health, particularly for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children.

To minimize the risks associated with consuming keta salmon or any other fish, it is advisable to follow guidelines provided by health authorities and environmental agencies. These guidelines typically recommend consuming fish from reputable sources, paying attention to local fish advisories, and varying the types of fish consumed to reduce the potential for exposure to contaminants. Chum salmon is generally considered a relatively low-risk option regarding mercury and other pollutants compared to fish with higher levels, such as shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.

How to Cook Chum Salmon

Chum salmon can be cooked using various methods, allowing you to enjoy its unique flavour and texture. Here are a few ways to prepare chum salmon:

How to Grill Chum Salmon

Grilling imparts a delicious smoky flavour to the chum salmon. Season the fillets with salt, pepper, and herbs or spices. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat and lightly oil the grates. Place the fillets skin-side down on the grill, and cook for about 4-5 minutes per side until the fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

How to Bake Chum Salmon

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Place the chum salmon fillets on a parchment-lined baking sheet and season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the salmon is cooked and flakes easily. You can also add herbs, spices, or a simple sauce like lemon dill, garlic butter, or teriyaki to enhance the flavour.

How to Pan-sear Chum Salmon

Heat a non-stick or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Season the chum salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Add some oil to the pan and place the fillets skin-side down. Cook for 4-5 minutes per side or until the fish is opaque and flakes easily. You can baste the salmon with melted butter or a sauce during cooking to add extra flavour.

How to Poach Chum Salmon

Poaching is a gentle cooking method that moistens the chum salmon. Bring water or a poaching liquid (such as a mix of white wine, water, and aromatics) to a simmer in a large, deep skillet or pot. Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper, and place them into the simmering liquid. Cook for about 10 minutes until the fish is cooked through and flakes easily.

How to Steam Chum Salmon

Steaming is another healthy way to cook chum salmon. Season the fillets with salt, pepper, and herbs or spices. Place the fillets in a steamer basket over a pot of simmering water, ensuring the salmon does not come in contact with the water. Cover and steam for 8-10 minutes or until the salmon is opaque and flakes easily.

How to Broil Chum Salmon

Preheat the broiler and position the oven rack about 4-6 inches from the heat source. Place the seasoned chum salmon fillets on a foil-lined broiler pan, and broil for about 4-6 minutes per side, or until the fish is cooked and flakes easily. Keep an eye on the salmon during broiling to prevent overcooking or burning.

How to Smoke Chum Salmon

Smoking chum salmon is a traditional and flavorful way to prepare this fish. Follow these steps to smoke chum salmon at home:

  1. Fillet and prepare the salmon: Clean the chum salmon and remove the head, tail, and fins. Fillet the fish, removing the backbone and pin bones. You can leave the skin on, as it helps to hold the fish together during smoking.
  2. Brine the salmon: Brining adds flavour and helps retain moisture during smoking. Prepare a simple brine by mixing 1 cup of kosher salt, 1 cup of brown sugar, and 1 gallon of cold water. You can add other ingredients to the brine, such as garlic, onion, pepper, or herbs. Submerge the salmon fillets in the brine and refrigerate for 6-12 hours.
  3. Rinse and dry the salmon: Remove the salmon fillets from the brine and rinse them thoroughly under cold water to remove any excess salt. Pat the fillets dry with paper towels, then place them on a wire rack, skin-side down. Allow the fillets to air-dry in a cool, well-ventilated area for 1-3 hours or until a shiny, slightly tacky pellicle forms on the surface. The pellicle helps the smoke adhere to the fish, providing a richer flavour.
  4. Prepare the smoker: Preheat your smoker to a temperature of 150-160°F (65-70°C). If using a charcoal or wood-fired smoker, maintain a low, steady heat by adding small amounts of charcoal or wood as needed. If using an electric or gas smoker, set the temperature control accordingly. To avoid overpowering the salmon’s taste, it is essential to use mild-flavoured wood, such as alder, apple, or cherry.
  5. Smoke the salmon: Place the salmon fillets on the smoker’s racks, skin-side down, ensuring they are not touching. Close the smoker and let the fish smoke for about 4-6 hours, depending on the fillets’ thickness and the desired smokiness level. Check the internal temperature of the thickest part of the fillet with a meat thermometer, aiming for a minimum of 145°F (63°C) to ensure it is cooked through.
  6. Cool and store the smoked salmon: Once it has reached the desired internal temperature and smokiness, remove it from the smoker and let it cool to room temperature on a wire rack. After cooling, wrap the smoked salmon in plastic or aluminum foil, refrigerate it for up to 10 days, or freeze it for longer storage.

Each cooking method can be tailored to your taste preferences by experimenting with different seasonings, sauces, and accompaniments. Enjoy your chum salmon with steamed vegetables, rice, or a fresh salad for a delicious and nutritious meal.


Chum salmon are a fascinating and ecologically significant species in the northern Pacific region. Understanding their life cycle, habitat preferences, and challenges is crucial for effective conservation and management strategies. As climate change and human activities continue to impact chum salmon populations, it is imperative to prioritize their preservation to benefit the ecosystems they inhabit and the communities that rely on them.

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