I camped out at my favorite river so as to get shots of the bears grabbing salmon! Lots of salmon in the river but zero bears? I was there for three days and saw no bears!
I talked to a friend of mine who has the unusual job of swimming down many streams around Tofino. He and his wife count salmon to get a idea on how healthy the run is. He told me that in 17 swims over the last month he and his wife saw only one bear!
No hunter or hunters could possibly wipe out that many bears all over the place. Maybe in one stream but still that’s stretching it! I haven’t a clue as to what’s going on? I’m hoping he and I are both wrong and the bears will show up on mass soon!
The salmon are beginning to stage in their natal streams! So this year I thought I’d try to do something different. Obviously I cannot hang around my favorite stream day after day, week after week.I’d like to…… but cannot.
So I have set up a Trail camera to catch the action. I placed it in a spot where the salmon are forced to expose themselves. They must move upstream to spawn! I picked this spot because they move from a deep pool to another pool above but have to swim over some washboard rapids exposing themselves.
Of course the bears are smart enough to know where the best spots are! The bears wander along the river banks each day searching and hoping that they are in the right spot when one of the salmon makes a break for it!
I too try to be at the right place at the right time but as I’ve said,I cannot be up there all the time. So I’ve set a trail camera up. I will collect the SD card after a month. Wish me luck! Its taken me years to figure this stuff out…….. or maybe I should say “think” I’ve got it figured out. This kind of stuff doesn’t come with a manual.
When a salmon comes into a river system they are full of energy.They’ve come here to party like its 2018! They have this very strong primordial desire to mate! Once they do, their energy levels begin to drop fast.(kind of like human males) Basically they begin to die & they know it.
When they get weaker they cannot swim out in the middle of the fast moving river.They come into the shallows to get out of that strong current. It would be similar to you running a marathon & there is a strong head wind against you! Getting out of that wind is all your thinking of!
Once they move into the shallows they become easy prey for the bears! The bears patrol the banks of the river each day.One might go upstream in the morning & maybe come downstream in the afternoon.
They are looking for salmon like our friend here.If a bear comes along,it’ll invite Mr.Salmon to dinner.They then will go for a short walk into the forest.
Her patience was rewarding by finding a tasty salmon for dinner! She slowly walked off into the forest to enjoy her salmon dinner in private.Most of the time the bears do not finish their salmon. They eat the best parts & leave the rest.This salmon will now decompose & act as fertilizer for the forest.The trees surrounding a salmon bearing stream grow larger as a result!
All the nutrients the salmon gathers over its 4 years while out in the open ocean are eventually brought back to the forest.
The bears wander up & down the streams banks searching for salmon.I’m standing in the middle of the stream for hours watching these bears walk past me.The salmon can see any movement near the bank & will dart away.While canoeing upstream many of them hit the bottom of my canoe in the panic to get away.Because I stand still in the water many times they will swim between my legs.I always hate when they splash near me & draw the attention of every bruin.Last thing I want is for a Bear to come crashing towards me!
Catching a “fresh” salmon is very hard as they are full of energy & quick! After a few weeks……not so much.They grow weaker & so get out of the rivers current by going close to shore.Thats exactly where the bears grab them!
They splash about seemly teasing the bears most of the time.
This is a male Chum salmon.After a few weeks in fresh water their bodies start to break down.The first thing to go is usually their skin. They get skin rot.They loose scales making them turn whitish in colour.When you see that they are getting close to checking out.
I found this guy in the shallows. When they first come into the river system,they are full of energy & very active! They can swim against the current no problem.After they spawn their bodies become weaker,so they cannot swim against the strong current anymore.They prefer to swim/stay in the shallows where the current is weaker. Notice how this guys dorsal fin is exposed.This is exactly what the bears are looking for! A bear will walk along the shore searching for these spent salmon. They’ll grab it & hurry off into the forest to enjoy their salmon dinner.
This is a recent video I shot up in Tranquil.It shows Chum salmon doing their dance of life! Once I let the “drift rig” go,it points where the current takes it.(the “Drift Rig” I made is three feet long.If the depth gets less than three feet it’ll drag along the bottom)This footage has not been edited.
The salmon have arrived & are moving into the river system! They all look fresh & full of fight! Didn’t see any bruins cruising the shore line yet. Now that the dinner bell is ringing its just a matter of time until they start cruising!
When a bear grabs a salmon,the first thing they do is get out of there! They know that If another bear sees him with that tasty salmon, there is a good chance it’ll charge forcing the bear to drop the salmon & flee.Bears always try to avoid fighting.
They eat the salmon deep in the forest in private.Because of this behaviour, over thousands of years the trees surrounding a salmon bearing stream grow larger! The whole fish is never eaten totally.So through out the entire forest hundreds if not thousands of salmon are scattered about.The nitrogen from the fish decays into the soil & the nutrients are absorbed by the root systems.Mother Natures fertilizing technique!
They’ve sampled these trees & found fish nitrogen in them!
This Chum salmon volunteered to be dinner tonight for this lucky bruin!
I like this spot.It’s at the rivers corner,so I can see upstream & downstream.When I see a bear in either direction,I paddle my canoe in that direction.While waiting for one of my furry friends to drop in for tea,I kept seeing the salmon jumping downstream! So I decided to play a game to pass the time.My goal was to get a shot of one of them jumping! I found it fairly hard! I had to basically prefocus,get the exposure & wait.I put my elbows on my knees as an in prompt bi-pod. I held the camera steady but didn’t look through the viewfinder.Instead I watched over the camera with both eyes & shot as quickly as I could when I saw one of the buggers jumping.Even than the best I could do was a tail! The amount of time we’re talking is measured in hundreds of seconds to react!
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!
I want you all to watch a short salmon video that was uploaded to YouTube recently! I’ve been working on this technique for several years now!
The trick is to get close to the salmon but not to spook them! After trying many ideas & getting mediocre results,I created a filming device I call a “Drift Rig”! I basically used a 2X4 with two “ready rod” going down the centre. At the bottom of this ready rod is a small wooden base & that is where I secured the Go-Pro.
I go upstream until I find a school of salmon. I than slip further upstream of them & release the Go Pro! I call it “Salmon Curling”.
Once I release the Go Pro,it’s at the mercy of the current! I have no control over the speed,direction or orientation! It’s a “by guess By golly” hold your breath kind of thing! If I’ve guessed right,I can usually make the camera go right through the centre of the school!
I didn’t just shoot this. I’ve decided that when I’ve been grounded (due to weather!) for longer than a week,I’m going to add a shot from the past.
I shot this back in Sept of 08 at Thornton Creek. I know this bear well & she allowed me to be close to her while she was searching for her dinner.
She is smaller than normal,so I called her “Mini”. She’s the best fishing bear down there! Very smart! Most bears stumble upon opportunities,but Mini looks for them!
Her cub’s each year are like her……..very small & very cute!
Mini was trying to draw her cub out from the it’s hiding spot in the forest. “Doodlebug” was watching Mum catch several fish over the course of the hour. Mini was bringing the fish over to Doodlebug with the intent of bringing it out in the open.
She was dropping the fish into a pile about 30 feet or so from the forests edge.
(you should understand that Cub’s has been protected by their Mothers all year from other animals! During the spawning season,it’s kind of like a “Debutantes Ball”,where the Cub’s are introduced to the rest of the bear world. They must get use to other bears being around.)
So “Doodlebug” came out slowly,sniffed one of the paralyzed fish & promptly picked it up in it’s mouth! Unfortunately the picking up awakened the fish & it shook violently, causing Doodlebug to run away & up a tree!
Live & learn!
I had to walk right by this spot to get upstream & unfortunately scared off this bear before he could finish his salmon dinner!
It was still breathing & no doubt in a lot of pain so I dispatched the poor thing with a rock.
At first I thought this was a female Chum salmon but now realize that it is a male! I thought what was squirting out were the eggs,but the colour is too white! Eggs should be orange! So this must be a male & his “Milt”!
This bear got his/her Thanksgiving meal! ……….I wonder if there was Pumpkin pie after??
I was very happy to get this sequence! The thing I found unusual about his sequence is that I took 22 shots and every single one worked! Not one dog in the group.
I don’t think I’ve ever done that before! Very lucky and I’m so happy that it happened when it did!
I do not know this bear ,but have seen him around. He grabbed a large Chinook female.
They hang around the spillways waiting for salmon to swim into these very shallow spillways.They will make alot of noise from the flapping and this is what the bears home in on…… noise/movement!
When they do,this is the result…….
This young Baldy was picking on this Coho for 20 minutes.
He finally flew off without the fish. They do this all the time to make their hunting skills sharper. By the time they become adults,they have become a lean ,mean predator.
There are four shots to this sequence.
Bears during spawning season will cruise along the rivers and creeks looking for opportunity’s. Which means ,they basically are looking for food(salmon)
Alot of times salmon who get tired will move out of the main current,and will go to the shallower sides of the river to take a breather! The current is not as fast & they rest here. Unfortunately,the Bears know this & cruise along the shore looking for these tired Salmon & grab then instantly.
Thats whats happening here.
In the first shot ,the bear tries to grab the salmon & the salmon realizes that it’s about to die and makes one last final leap.
These 4 shots show this salmon’s last moments on this earth!The bear pinned it after this shot and went off to the forest to munch on his meal without being bothered.
This bear got lucky,and I wish I could of too.
I was on the wrong side of the light ! If I was over on the other side looking back,the light would of been Fantastic !
Still has merit. How often does one encounter these amazing events?
I was out on the Estuary and this bear heard and saw a loud salmon flapping beside! The bear immediately charged straight at me,but I knew he was after the salmon and not me! Important info to know at moments like this!
I moved to the right as he pinned and grabbed the fish instantly. He walked right in front of me and posed for a full 5 minutes. He did not seem to fear anything and couldn’t of been too hungry.
They become almost drunk like with their full belly’s. They feel the way you do after a huge turkey dinner. They just move slowly and sleep alot. Sound familiar??
Your looking at the death throes of a male Coho.
Mini caught this guy and took him over to the edge of the forest for her shy cub,Doodlebug. Doodlebug later picked up the huge fish and I missed the shot ! It would of been a great shot. Little bear with big red Salmon !