Chum Succeeds King as Ruler of the River

Local fisherman and conservationist Sebastian Jones with a Chum salmon. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

A Dawson fall tradition — and food staple — continues as the annual Chum salmon run is in full swing in the Yukon River. Out on the river, several commercial fisherman are catching Chum to help fill the freezers of Dawsonites.

There was a time when Chum salmon used to be known as ‘dog fish.’ This was when the King salmon (also known as Chinook salmon)  were running in such great numbers that Chum was reserved for dog food.  This is no longer the case. The King salmon population has declined significantly and  eight years ago a moratorium on fishing of species was put into place, and there has been no commercial King salmon fishing in Dawson since then.

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who have traditional rights to the harvest, also voluntarily stopped subsistence fishing for King salmon in 2014 for a seven-year period,  in hopes that by then the King salmon population will have revitalized.

Dawsonites keep hope of a renewed King Salmon run someday.  In the meantime,  chum has become a staple in a local Dawson diet.  Suzanne especially enjoys it marinated in birch syrup and smoked or poached in the oven with onions and rhubarb juice.

Gerard’s Blog: I’se the B’y That Catches the Fish


I grew up in Newfoundland.  I ate fish every day.  When we had free time, we fished.  Alternatively, we would collect mussels or clams, or if we wanted something different to do, we would hike into the hills to go fishing for trout.  As young men, when we went camping, it was up the river to fish for salmon.

The beginning of summer vacation was always hallmarked by parties at Caplin Gulch, while we fished for … caplin.  If the caplin was in abundance (as it always was), we would use the surplus in our vegetable gardens as fertilizer.  Or we would add seaweed to the soil, which was a “byproduct” of our fishing.

Breakfast was most frequently fish. My mother loved to fish and we lived on the banks of a salmon river.  Throughout the summers she would often fish early in the morning, so we could awaken to the smell of frying trout.  Failing that, she would fry up cod’s heads. Or salmon.  Sometimes, there would be “fisherman’s bruise,” made from the leftovers of the previous evenings supper.  Since we ate fish every day, it always gave us a moment for reflection when others would specifically mention how they were having fish because it was Good Friday.  For us, every day was Good Friday.

So you can imagine the shock when I came to the realization that I don’t like to fish.  I’ve been thinking the thought for a few years now.  I’ve been reminiscing about my exploits of the past and I’ve been wondering whether it was the fish I was seeking, or just the food, or perhaps the camaraderie of my buddies.  Or was it just the expectation, the alternative of being a “non-fisherman” being too sacrilegious to even contemplate?

I’ve been trying out the words lately, saying things like, “I only like fishing when there are fish.”  In other words, I’ve been fishing for responses, testing the waters before coming out of the closet with the admission that I don’t like to fish.  So, that’s it then.  I don’t like to fish.  Can’t help it.  Ancestors, don’t roll in your graves, or haunt me tonight (or for all eternity for that matter!).

Because of this diet thing, there has been a certain amount of pressure for me to fish, since fish is local.  Tried a couple of times for whitefish.  None.  Tried for grayling, but could not disguise the fact that mostly I just want to drive the boat.  It’s hard to catch fish if the line doesn’t touch the water…

But last night, last night I caught two grayling!   And we fried them up and ate them and they were delicious and they brought back a flood of fond memories and now I think I’ve got grayling figured out and so am thinking about fishing, looking forward to it actually.  So now I am confused, my conviction is being tested.  Could I, in fact, enjoy fishing?

A Very Special Gift to Start Suzanne’s Journey

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Angie Joseph-Rear (right) presents Suzanne with fish eggs from the first King Salmon harvested by that First Nation in several years. Photo by Tess Crocker

Suzanne has been given a very special gift to start her journey of a year of eating local — fish eggs from the first King Salmon harvested by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in many years.  Mähsi cho to Angie Joseph-Rear and all the elders, youth and adults involved in First Fish Culture Camp at Moosehide Village.

First Fish Culture Camp is an opportunity to pass on knowledge to youth regarding the fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon.  It takes place over 5 days at Moosehide Village.  Chum salmon has generally been the salmon processed at First Fish.  With the decline of the King Salmon population and the moratorium on commercial King Salmon Fishing in the Yukon, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in voluntarily stopped harvesting King Salmon for subsistence fishing approximately 5 years ago in order to aid in the re-growth of the King Salmon population in the Yukon River.  And there is evidence that the King Salmon population is increasing.

the-first-King-Salmon-1-
First-king-Salmon-3
First-King-Salmon-4

First Fish Culture Camp teaches youth traditional methods for fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.

On Tuesday, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elders Committee made the decision to allow a 48-hour window of King Salmon harvesting for the purpose of this year’s First Fish Culture Camp.  So yesterday, for the first time in many years, the fish nets were set for King Salmon.  And that evening, under the watchful eye of a boat of elders and another boat of youth and Hän singers singing ‘Luk Cho’ (which means big fish in the Hän language), the first net was checked and two beautiful King Salmon were harvested.  A special day for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and First Fish Culture Camp, and a very generous and special gift to start Suzanne’s journey of eating local.

Mähsi cho.

The roe from one King Salmon. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

A Spring Treat: Atlin Lake Whitefish

One of the great treats of spring in the Southern Yukon is fresh whitefish from the Yukon end of Atlin Lake. The local fisherman lays a net underneath the ice anytime from late March to early May, and sells his catch under the name Great Northern Fish Company. The season is short and the yield small, but on a good day he can take out 75 fish, each one about weighing about two kilos.

This year, on a blazing, blue-sky morning, Michelle Genest’s husband went out to Atlin Lake to help with the harvest. He came home in the late afternoon with 10 kilos of beautiful pinky-white filets wrapped in 10 500-gram packages. (The harvesting, fileting and packaging all happen on the same day, and the guts feed the eagles and the ravens.)

Michelle and her husband cooked a batch that night, in the simplest way imaginable: dipped in egg and flour and fried in butter. Glorious. Atlin Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) cooks up firm and tender and is so delicate in flavour you have to pay attention. The reward for that attention is the flavour of lake, sky, and a sparkling spring day on the Yukon end of Atlin Lake in late April or early May. It doesn’t get much better.

There’s nothing better than fresh-caught whitefish cooked in butter.

Our local fisherman already has a full roster of customers, but for information on how and where to catch your own whitefish in the Yukon, visit http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/hunting-fishing-trapping/wherefish.php.