It’s Fall time in Tofino & that means the salmon are staging in their natal stream to spawn.Basically a big party for everyone! All the animals gather around these streams to feast! Bears,Eagles,Wolves all eat the salmon.
As a wildlife photographer,I try to capture these party moments. I’ve searched around to try & find great salmon streams. There are many good streams around Tofino.
When I find a good stream,I study it.I canoe up stream to check things out.
The most critical skill a photographer requires is, observation. I try to learn from what I see & feel.
I’ve found the best bear/salmon action happens when the tide is low.There is less water for the salmon to manoeuvre in.If a bear jumps in after a bunch of salmon & it’s high tide,the salmon have plenty of room to dart away & escape capture.However,during low tide the reverse is true.There is a lot less water for the salmon to hide in.The bears know the “shallow spots” where the salmon must pass through in order to go upstream & spawn.The bears gather around these exposed gravelled spots & wait for the salmon to “run”.In the shallows the salmons dorsal fin becomes exposed.Bears have poor eyesight in general but excellent vision for movement.When they see these dorsal fins coming into the shallows they run over,grab the salmon & high tail it out there into the forest! They do it quickly in case there is another larger or more aggressive bear around.These bears will charge forcing it to drop the salmon! It’ll than run off into the bush frightened! The charging bear will pick up the salmon & usually eat it right there.They do this to show that they are dominate. They usually eat the brains first……….almost like Zombie bears.
Once the run is underway,a bear may have anywhere from 5 to 15 lbs of salmon in it’s belly. Having these constantly full belles makes them much less aggressive. Think of how you feel after a large Thanksgiving meal.You don’t feel like fighting. Which means the bears are more docile. Mother Nature has designed it that way.Bears mate during the spawning season.It’s the only time they feel comfortable around each other. I’ve observed this behaviour many times.You can se in the picture below two bears getting to know each other.The male is on the left with the female on the right.If you look really closely,you can see my white boat anchoured downstream.
I wear my neoprene chest waders when I go upstream.When I approach the bears on these gravelled spots,they move out of my way.It’s like parting a black sea of bears sometimes!
I remember the first time I did that.I was scared but after observing how they reacted I was pretty sure they would be scared of me……or at least I was hoping?
This is where I should tell you why I wanted to go upstream in the first place.
I found a spot where the salmon group together to wait out the low tide cycle. Hundreds group together in this spot! They don’t swim forward or back,they just stay stationary swimming against the streams current. (in the video,it looks like the salmon are swimming past but they actually are staying still & the camera is drifting through them)
The problem with getting underwater pictures of salmon is that they get scared easily & dart away if you try to approach! So I wondered how does one get underwater video of salmon? After trying several proto types,I came up with what I called a “Drift Rig”.
It basically is “T” shaped device.The top of the “T” is made out of wood & floats on the surface. The rest of the “T” is made up of two 18 inch ready rods with a small platform at the bottom for the Go Pro. Ready Rod is a long threaded rod.It comes in 36 inch lengths.I cut it in half to get two lengths.The threads allow me to attach everything together.I’ve included a picture to show you what I mean.
I walk through the bears to this spot, start the camera & release the Drift rig. Once I let go of the rig I have zero control over it.If it decides to turn right,it’ll turn right. I let the rig drift through the salmon & pick it back up downstream.. I’ve found that the salmon are not afraid of things drifting downstream.When the rains come in the Fall,the river swells.This increase in speed under cuts the banks releasing all sorts of flotsam downstream.
This is where I’d like you to watch the video I took.The salmon you are about to see are “Chum”. There are a few larger “Chinook” salmon at the rear & one trout!