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October 26, 2001

Chums of Choice

How experts choose the right chum and chumming gear.

For decades, anglers have pulled game fish - from kelp (calico) bass near shore to schools of ravenous yellowfin tuna farther out - to their transoms and kept them there by pitching out handfuls of live anchovies. On a much smaller scale, the same technique is used by small boats in the Southeast's mangrove or oyster estuaries. Small, live menhaden or pilchards are tossed out to attract redfish, snook and other species and put them in a feeding mood.

Most anglers don't think of chumming to catch bonefish. That's a sight-fishing game. But what about when the water is so stirred up that you can't see the bones to cast to? Some guides, like Capt. Bill Curtis of Miami, Florida chum the flat from a staked-out skiff. Just a dozen live shrimp cut into small pieces and thrown out around the boat will often bring the bones in.

Similarly, northern anglers regularly throw out canned corn and cat food and sand balls mixed with menhaden, crushed clams and mussels to attract a number of species of nearshore game fish.

Try a Tube
When Gulf of Mexico shrimp-boat bycatch became difficult to come by, Kyrt Wentzell of Biloxi, Mississippi, started grinding baitfish in a commercial meat grinder attached to the stern of his boat. "Smashing shrimp trash in a burlap bag or onion sack with a rubber mallet was easy enough, but the stuff flew everywhere and dried like concrete. The meat grinder wasn't much better," he says. "As long as the baitfish were small, it wouldn't clog. Usually, I just cut everything up. But who wants to cut 50 pounds of fish into small pieces every time you go fishing?"

That's when Wentzell got the idea for his Chum Churn. He uses a 4-inch diameter PVC main tube with an intersecting 4-inch-wide "feeder" tube designed to handle baitfish as long as 12 inches. A series of razor-sharp, stainless blades at 45-degree angles macerate whole fish into mincemeat in less than a minute with a few thrusts of the hand plunger. The device fits into a gunwale- or transom-mounted rod holder. The 32-inch exit tube hangs over into the water, sending out a cloud of particles.

"Once you get going, the splashing and thrashing of the plunger becomes a sound attractant as well, imitating the sound of fish busting in bait," says Wentzell. "The combination of scent with sound is unbeatable. It really gets the fish feeding."

Another local variation on chum tubes comes from the Northeast, where fishermen stuff chopped shedder crabs into a capped, 6-inch PVC chum tube with 30 or 40 holes drilled into it. Lowered to the bottom from a nylon cord, it works in concert with baited shedder crabs to attract 10-plus-pound seatrout.

Pots, Large and Small
In Fort Pierce, Florida, some fishermen rely on small stainless cylinders to get snapper and grouper feeding. A 5- by 2-inch tube, designed to work with Sabiki bait rigs, is filled with chunks of fresh pilchard, sardines, threadfin herring or squid. This can be attached to a 1-pound bank sinker and deployed from a 40-pound rod. Every minute or so, give a yank to release more scent. At the same time, gradually work the pot toward the surface over a period of 10 to 15 minutes to bring up fish from the bottom.

Commercial or homemade chum pots are far too cumbersome for casting. Ingenious Hawaiians have devised a lightweight version that, unlike heavy chum pots designed to be dropped, can be cast out.

This "ultra-light" chum pot's made from a plastic film canister, a 3/4-inch piece of styrofoam, an icepick and a tube of Super Glue. To make one, poke five or six good-size holes around the bottom of the canister. After measuring and cutting foam to match the circumference, glue the foam to the inside of the lid. With an ice pick, poke another small hole through the top for the line. After packing the canister with menhaden-laced chum, thread a short piece of thin wire though the two center-cut holes, adding small ball-bearing swivels to either side for attaching the line.

"Chum pockets" are another wrinkle on the same theme. Capt. David King of Lil' Adam Charters in Fort Pierce, Florida, who specializes in wahoo, cobia, bottom species, snook and tarpon, keeps them in a plastic zipper on his boat ready for use at any time.

King cuts 30 to 35 5- by 5-inch squares from a brown paper grocery sack. He fills the squares with whatever type of fresh or frozen bait he has that day. He chops the bait into 1/4- inch pieces, puts eight to 10 pieces in the middle of the paper square, and then gathers it around the bait and twists the ends. "Two half-hitches of mono leader is all that's necessary to attach the chum pocket," King says. After lowering his bait with the adjacent chum pocket at the top of the leader to bottom, he gives one or two yanks. "The half hitches come right out, without knotting, delivering a little chum puff right where you need it."

Bags and Baskets
The typical 20- by 12- by- 6-inch, vinyl-painted chum basket sold in Southeast tackle shops hold an entire 5- to 7-pound block of frozen chum plus a 3- to 6-pound sash weight. Double-size baskets are also available. With a freshwater rinse, they'll last at least years. They sell for around $15 to $20.

Like chum pots and baskets, chum bags attract bait - and predators. But not all chum bags are created equal. In the Florida Keys, serious chummers carry two and sometimes three different sizes of bags. The standard-issue nylon, 1/4-inch mesh chum bag is used to attract ballyhoo to cast-net for sailfishing. It does a good job filtering out the big chunks, releasing the small, oily particles that baitfish favor. Some chummers such as Florida's Capt. Brad Simonds save the big chunks left in the bag to toss out over deeper reefs.

Containers as simple as plastic milk crates are often put to use in the Northeast to chum for sharks. Here nothing attracts mako sharks better than an oily stew of ground menhaden, mackerel, bluefish, fish blood and carcases. The 5-gallon bucket, filled with frozen chum, is placed neck down in a plastic milk crate that hangs from the stern.

Sponges and I.V. Bags
A long-standing debate among chummers involves releasing quantities of chum or just metering out enough scent and particles to attract - but not overfeed - fish. Those of the latter opinion can easily stem the flow of chum by leaving it in its cardboard carton, tearing open only the end flap. You can also slow the pace of chum dispersal by placing the box so the chum flows out over a natural - not synthetic - sponge.

All chum eventually loses its punch. One way to jump-start smell and flavor again uses a standard medical I.V. pump bag attached to the stern cleat. Filled with commercially available menhaden oil, the steady drip leaves a fragrant and visible sheen that enhances even washed-out chum. Medical supply stores and now catalog outfitters such as Offshore Angler sell them. A similar device called King Stream Drippers sells for less than $16. For a cleaner and more economical variation, try soaking a large sponge in menhaden oil. Placed directly in the bag with frozen chum, "It works as good as an I.V. bag, but isn't as messy," says Capt. Troy Nelson.