The captain pulled back the throttles until the big diesels were barely turning. We had arrived at the southern end of the La Jolla Kelp Beds, a massive undersea jungle that stretches for almost 5 miles along the coast of Southern California just a half mile off the shore. The giant fronds begin at their “holdfasts” which attach themselves to the rocks and reefs on the seabed. Then they soar over 80 feet upwards to spread their golden-brown leaves over the ocean surface as a thick mat, so dense that seabirds stand everywhere on the kelp.
Sliding along at 2-3 knots, parallel to the edge of the beds and about 30 feet away, the captain shouted to the deckhand “OK, start a chum line”. The crewman scooped a few anchovies from the live bait tank with a small net and began to toss them off the stern, one every 25 yards or so. All eyes were riveted on the water between the wakes behind the boat for any disturbance. Nothing happened for a good mile, and then there was a swirl in the chum line about 10 boat lengths back. “Boil”, some sharp-eyed person yelled, and the captain swung the sportfisher in a full circle and headed back toward that spot. As he reached the area he began steering the boat in a tight circle while the deckhand increased his rate of flipping live baits over the side. Soon another boil, and then another broke the calm sea surface inside the circle. Now the mate brailed a full quarter of a scoop of bait out. The captain expertly judged the current or drift by the direction the kelp stringers lay and moved up current of his circle about 30 yards, stopped, and dropped the anchor. As he slid back and the chain came tight, we were sitting directly in the center of his chum circle and boils now surrounded the stern. On the skipper’s OK, the passengers began casting out around the boat. Every fishing line that hit the water then, whether with live bait or a cast jig, was instantly inhaled by a speedy log barracuda or a powerful yellowtail.
Subsequently, a slow chum rate of one or two baits every now and then was enough to keep the school around the boat for well over an hour. This allowed all passengers to get real healthy and fill out their gunnysacks handsomely.
Here is just one example of the value of chumming in offshore fishing. Because most saltwater fish are not equally spread over their range, but are concentrated in moving or semi-stationary schools, much time and effort can be wasted on the barren areas. In our case above, if we had set up most anywhere else we could have ended up soaking our baits all morning at worst, or waiting a long time until a roving school came upon us at best.
So, chumming is a way to locate fish. One year I owned an albacore jig boat, trolling hand lines with lures for these prize tuna. Usually when a fish hit you pulled it in and kept going in a straight line, or you boxed the area, or you might turn into a wide circle to concentrate on that spot where you got the fish. Since we had no live bait carrying system, we brought a 5-gallon can of salted anchovies along which we purchased from a local bait dealer. As we trolled over long stretches, we would throw a bait over every 50 to 100 yards, where the prop wash would spin it and give it some animation. Every so often we would see the splash or boil of a fish and begin to circle that spot. Often we would soon be bit on the jigs, which had sailed through this same area untouched just minutes before. Again, this is a way to locate fish.
Another way chumming is used is to bring to and keep fish, which have been located by a jig strike, surface sightings, or electronic metering, to the boat. An example of this is the practice of tossing over some small baits as soon as you stop on a strike or on a spot of breaking fish. Many times the school will come up boiling off the stern corner and cast baits or lures will then be effective. This is especially true with the tunas, Dorado (dolphin fish), and wahoo. On my boat Osprey when we get a jig strike, I immediately pull the throttles back to the stops. Then my deckhand or whoever gets to the tank first scoops up a small amount of live bait, maybe 5 to 10 pieces, and slaps the bottom of the net as we throw the chum over. This tends to scatter the bait and covers a wider area off the stern. I think it stuns the bait momentarily too, which keeps it near the surface where boils are obvious. This is done before anything else such as picking up rods or clearing other lines. And there is still enough momentum of the boat through the water as it slows down to elicit further strikes on these other lines if any quantity of tuna is there.
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