Flying fish – catching salmon on camera

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Atlantic salmon – one of autumn’s specials in our neck of the woods

From surfing penguins in South Africa to…leaping salmon on the Tyne. There’s a definite watery theme to our photography at the moment. We’d hardly finished saying goodbye to the two oceans of the Cape peninsula last month than we suddenly found ourselves staring into yet more foaming waters – in this case the iconic north-east England river near our home.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
It’s a mystery why we hadn’t photographed the annual salmon spectacular before

We’d wanted to photograph the splash and flash of jumping salmon for a while. Although we live in the perfect place to do it – the Tyne is England’s prime salmon river and the annual salmon run’s an autumn highlight in these parts – it’s always ended up being one of those ‘doorstep’ subjects we’ve never quite got around to doing precisely because they’re so handy. You know the ones. You intend to have a serious go photographing them, and even note it down on your shooting list for the season. But then it drops off the bottom again because you tell yourself they’ll still be there again next year and it’ll be a good project to do then because you kid yourself you’ll have more time to devote it in 12 months.

Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, and sea trout (top, larger), Salmo trutta lacustris, smolts, Kielder Salmon Hatchery, Northumberland UK
Atlantic salmon and sea trout smolts we photographed at Kielder salmon hatchery

It’s a bit weird this particular local shot has eluded us for so long given the fact Steve’s a keen angler – any excuse to stare into a river and dream of finding a free day for some fly fishing is welcome in his book. That coupled with the fact we’d previously done a photo story on the fascinating work of the nearby Kielder dam salmon hatchery.

Atlantic salmon alevin and eggs, Kielder Salmon Hatchery, Northumberland UK
Atlantic salmon alevin and eggs, Kielder salmon hatchery

As a result we have photographs on file of all stages of the hatchery’s work from salmon eggs to smolts, but not a single image of a splashing wild salmon flip flopping in the river. You could well say it was the shot that got away.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping weir on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Awesome to see the salmon finally make it over the weir

This autumn we hadn’t even put the salmon on our shopping list of pictures. I think we completely forgot about it. It was only when we were passing by chance, and, attracted by the crowds of spectators gathered above the weir, leaned over to see for ourselves that we truly appreciated what a compelling and photogenic wildlife subject we had within our reach. Why had we left it so long? The sheer numbers of fish exploding out of the teeming waters was staggering, the energy of it all breathtaking, their migration story mind-blowing, their jewel colours against the dark pools of the river mesmerising. They really do look for all the world as though they’re flying. The challenge to capture them on camera was overwhelming. From nowhere the salmon were top of our ‘wish list’ and we rushed home at once to get the camera gear.

Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, hen selected for broodstock at hatchery, Kielder Salmon Centre, Kielder, Northumberland, UK
Atlantic salmon selected for broodstock at Kielder salmon hatchery

For a couple of days, while the water was high enough and when the light was bright enough to give us the requisite speed for sharp action shots and that all important glint of silver on our splashing subjects, we primed our cameras and trained our lenses on the salmon show.

Stripping eggs from Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, selected for broodstock at hatchery, Kielder Salmon Centre, Kielder, Northumberland, UK
Stripping eggs from Atlantic salmon, Kielder salmon hatchery

We very quickly discovered it was no use trying to predict where and when the salmon would leap. They’re just too fast. You need to pick your spot – just as a fisherman would.  So to catch our fish we trained our cameras on the busiest part of the weir where the highest number of fish and the biggest specimens appeared to make their leap of faith – making sure we had plenty of speed, a fast frame rate and enough depth of field. Then it was just a matter of waiting patiently for the magic moment when a salmon leaped into our view – a bit like waiting for that tug on the line. Click, click, click…

The technique seemed to work okay and we were quite pleased with our first attempts. If we don’t get back again to exploit the remaining window of opportunity this season we’ll definitely be back to try again next November.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Keep your lens trained on a spot where the salmon regularly leap and wait…

Success seemed to be all about holding our nerve as we learned to our cost on more than one occasion. Because it felt stupid at first to narrow our view so much when salmon were leaping along the full length of the weir we kept being tempted to shift position. Don’t. Even though it’s hard to stay focused on the same spot when you start seeing lots of bits of salmon leaping in the corners of your frame, be patient, the fish will jump into your frame at some point. If you take your eye away from the viewfinder, and your finger off the shutter release for just a split second, it’s guaranteed the biggest, best salmon that day will jump perfectly, just where you want it in the frame…

David Kirkland of the Kielder Salmon Centre releasing Atlantic salmon smolts (Salmo sala ), into the North Tyne, Kielder, Northumberland, UK, April 2012
Releasing Atlantic salmon smolts into the North Tyne