Typically, the season on the lower Yukon opens in mid-June for the short-lived run of the highly prized (and pricey) king or chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), but this year, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, citing low estimates based on sonar technology, called off king season and told fisherman to wait it out for the summer and fall chum (Oncorhynchus keta), also marketed as keta and coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), sometimes called silver.
July 3 was the first day Kwik'pak fisherman could go out on the river, but it wasn't long before the state agency closed the season again, this time for most of August. As a result, says Kwik'pak general manager Jack Schultheis, this year's catch—just shy of 1.5 million pounds—is down by half, compared to last year.
There is some consolation to this year's up-and-down fish drama, and its name is fall chum. It could be argued that the very delay and ultimate closure of this year's Yukon king season was a golden opportunity for the second-tier (and often overlooked) fall chum to step into the freshwater limelight.
A paler fleshtone and a big set of teeth have earned Oncorhynchus keta the nickname "dog salmon," characteristics that have it difficult to win over the American palate. In its first few years of operation, Kwik'pak was selling all of its fall chum to Japan. This year, says Schultheis, marks the first big marketing push in the Lower 48 for fall chum, which is why you may have seen it at seafood counters this summer.
Chefs in increasing numbers are cozying up to fall chum, admiring its versatility and rich flavor that is comparable to the beloved king.
Fall chum "blows other salmon out of the water," says Christine Keff, chef-owner of Flying Fish in Seattle. "It eats very well, with enough oil to give it good flavor, but not too strong. We have had very good response to it in the restaurant."
Says Marcus Guiliano, chef-owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro in New York's Hudson Valley:
"I only buy chum from the Yukon. We call it the Kobe beef of salmon. The flavors are so intense that we hardly do anything to it in the kitchen—pan-sear it with just a bit of high-quality sea salt, no sauce necessary. When you taste this fish, the fat content is unbelievable."
There is science behind all that naturally occurring flavor. In anticipation of a 2,300-mile journey upstream (the length of the Yukon River), the fall chum stores enough fat to fuel the distance, resulting in oil-rich flesh. According to Fred Bue, a biologist at Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the fall chum swims a minimum of 1,000 miles to spawn, a much greater distance than its summer counterpart, which may go half that distance. "They have more energy reserves to carry them further upstream, which gives them a higher fat content," says Bue of the fall chum.
A Kwik'pak-sponsored lab test indicated an average 16 percent fat content and more than four grams of Omega-3 fatty acids, in a 100-gram serving of Yukon fall chum. Omega-3s, as they're commonly known, are the anti-inflammatory heart-healthy and brain-boosting fats that Americans are clamoring for, found in fish and nut oils. In contrast, the same size of king salmon from other rivers is much lower in Omega-3s—about 1.5 grams.