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Slick strategy: the art of chumming

Chumming is the practice of slinging some form of cut bait, ground bait or scented liquid into the drink to attract desired game fish. It is known to be so lethally and universally effective that it’s considered borderline unethical, relative to more “sporting” tactics. And as usual, that reputation has been advanced almost exclusively by folks who’ve never so much as attempted the method.

Chumming can be deadly when conditions are right and a trip-saver when fish are scattered.

In reality, chunking — the fishing of actual hookbaits in conjunction with chum — while conceptually simple, demands the same awareness of conditions, the same eye for the subtleties of a fishing scenario, the same degree of discipline and the same work ethic as any other fishing technique. Granted, some of the fastest bites I’ve fished have built on a chum slick, but contrary to some of the gossip, there’s nothing foolproof about it.

What most chunking neophytes don’t understand is that a cavalier approach to the chum slick won’t just fail to put fish in the boat; it can actually derail a bite that might otherwise have materialized. You can chum too heavily, feeding the fish and never tempting them toward your steel-bearing chunks. You can chum too lightly, especially when there are big clouds of squid or other aggressive forage hanging in an area, gobbling up all traces before you can broadcast scent to the predators you seek. You can drum in a pestilence of dogfish, blue sharks or other undesirables — or get a swarm of juvenile fish so horsed up on your aquatic gravy train that you can’t get a bait through to the bigger specimens you’re targeting.

Worst of all, you can break your slick — slinging morsels for six hours, only to abandon the ladle in the excitement of the night’s first hook-up. Whatever life you’ve convinced to swim through six miles of greasy water toward the boat stops before it reaches you; miles of carefully dispensed chum become a massive plot of easy pickings moving rapidly away from you and your baits, still collecting fish and dragging them away on a 2-knot tide.

There’s still the matter of how best to present baits to whatever fish follow your scent trail to the boat. Even a perfectly distributed stream of cut bait can’t help if there are no hookbaits awaiting their arrival, if the hooks have been picked clean by, say, squid or crabs. In other situations, baits might sit at the wrong depth, the slick and all its fish confined to the top 10 feet of the water column while your hookbaits wither away 80 feet below.

Another problem chunkers discover the hard way is the incredible rate at which hookbaits wash out, spin up or otherwise implode. This renders the entire operation futile at that critical moment the fish you’ve been waiting for pass through your slick and find no reason to stick around.

Know your quarry

Folklore reduces chumming to a more or less brain-dead procedure in which a slovenly, beer-guzzling deck ape slops some rancid foulness into the drink and sharks come running like pigs to a trough. On the real ocean, effective chumming means understanding your quarry’s feeding behavior, and tailoring the chum composition and the mode of distributing it to the target species’ preferences.

Flounder fishing, for example, mostly warrants getting the scent close to bottom. Chunking for tuna, however, it’s what you use (butterfish, sand eels, squid) that counts. So does the way you cut the chunks. I usually cut butterfish diagonally, so chunks somewhat resemble individual baitfish. If the water is cool or there has been a lot of chum in the area recently, you need to weigh the possibility that your tuna slick will call in a swarm of blue dogs or other sharks, whose arrival amounts to a death rattle for your tuna campaign.

In contrast, when chumming for sharks it will be to your advantage to play to as many of a mako’s or thresher’s senses as possible. We used to put one bucket of frozen ground bunker chum in the barrel and then add salt water, bunker oil, special shark attractant formulas, scales and glitter, and finely chopped bluefish, bonito or tuna frames. We’d go so far as saving the blood from bluefish for a week ahead of the trip and, when possible, supplement the brew, which we’d ladle over our down-drift side, with “floater” hake or whiting we’d dip net off the surface, running along in a dragger’s wake — these latter items providing a nice visual element to the whole affair.

Raw materials

Regardless of the target species, three rules apply. First, garbage chum begets garbage fishing. If you wouldn’t hang it on a hook, you probably don’t want to chum with it. Second, consistency is the order of the day. Once you start chumming, don’t stop until you pick up and head home, or you’re forced to move and abandon your slick.

Lastly, carry way more chum than you think you’ll use in a trip. If you’re heading for a canyon overnight, think 10 or 15 flats of butterfish, not the two or three that so many otherwise sensible skippers carry. If tides are boiling or recent reports indicate a mother lode of live bait where you’re headed, you may have to chum like gangbusters just to “get the word out.” If you’re rationing chum when the fish finally plow through, you can expect to lose them just as quickly as they materialized.

If you blanch at the idea of spending a couple hundred bucks on bait, consider what you’ve already dumped into fuel, the ballyhoo and trolling-lure budget, the fluorocarbon leader, welded-eye hooks, the Hydro Glow lights and the grub bill. To blow the night bite over $200 against the other $2,000 you’ve sunk into the mission will not sit well with anyone aboard as you steam homebound into building northwest winds with nary a fish in the boxes three days hence.

What do you see?

In canyon fishing, which tends to be the most demanding chunk fishery, or under certain conditions striper fishing, chumming can create more than one positive scenario. The first, obviously, is one in which the fish munch their way up the slick, eating your chum. In the second case, the chum you sling uptide runs under the boat, sinking as it drifts along with the tide, attracting baitfish such as mackerel, squid, butterfish or herring, or a combination of forage fish. This amounts to a mini food chain — chum gathers krill, krill gathers juvenile squid, which in turn gathers jumbo mackerel — some component of which pulls in the yellowfin tuna or the striped bass you’re looking to catch.

What you do in terms of hookbaits should reflect whichever scenario you suspect you’re seeing. The key is taking time to examine every fish you land for evidence of its dietary preferences. This is not high-level ecology; it’s stomach-content analysis. Open up your catch (assuming it’s legal) and determine what it’s been eating. If its belly is packed with chunks you cut, be sure to include at least one cut bait in your lineup — and not just whole baitfish you favor for hookbaits.

If you’ve been chumming with butterfish and your tuna is packed with 4-inch squid, it might be time to break out the squid jigs and try to procure some indigenous live baits. If you can’t “make bait,” you can often get the job done by sending a diamond jig down on one rod while you keep the slick going.

Work for fish

It’s probably common sense, but you’ll get the best results per unit of chunking effort if you use the slick to your advantage. The easiest routine is to set a couple of baits at staggered depths, engage the clickers, then ladle away while you wait for the fish to come to you. Trouble is, the chunks of chum will be adrift, riding the current astern while your hookbaits dangle motionless 25 feet or 50 feet below the stream of attractant goodies.

As much as you might use the stream of cut bait to attract fish, you should also use it to camouflage your hookbaits, especially during the day, in clear water or in other circumstances likely to reveal the sharp ones for the frauds they are. Don’t be lazy. Hide the hook as best you can inside a bait, coil a few yards of line off the rod tip, then feed your bait out with the current at as close to the same rate and depth as the hookless chunks. When your bait is out a ways, crank it back up and start again. We call this “working the lines,” and it’s a technique that has much to do with the performance gap between the 10 percent who catch and the 90 percent who rinse their hooks night after night.

Working lines is labor-intensive, but it accomplishes several things. Whereas the set-and-forget approach often translates to soggy, washed-out offerings, active chunking forces you to inspect your hookbaits constantly and, thus, increases the frequency of bait changes. It also keeps you focused on the task at hand — both the chumming and the fishing — and increases the odds of a hook-up by an exponential margin. Lastly, a better-concealed bait frequently gets better fish.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.