How To Photograph The Salmon Run

Alaskan Salmon Run

I first had the opportunity to photograph the salmon run a few years back on a trip to Alaska. It’s a thrill and one every wildlife photographer should do. I’ve also had the opportunity to shoot it in Canada and in Washington State. When you see the salmon coming up a stream with their scales reflecting light like an overhead mirror, it’s hard not to be impressed by their sheer numbers and determination to reach their spawning grounds.

I would recommend heading out early on a morning when they’re expected. Be prepared for mosquitoes, so bring repellant and don’t forget your hiking boots or shoes. Now let’s get to the rest of the salmon photography tips.

What Is A Salmon Run?

A salmon run is a migration when salmon travel upstream to their spawning grounds. Salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they’re born in freshwater streams and rivers, then journey out into the ocean where they live for several years before returning to their place of birth to spawn and die. They typically return to spawn at the age of two or three years old.

Some kinds of salmon spend more time in freshwater than others do before heading back out into the ocean. Coho salmon typically spend two years in freshwater before heading out into the ocean. On the other hand, pink salmon typically spend only one year in freshwater before heading out to sea. The different timing of migration makes it possible to photograph multiple species during a single trip.

When Is The Salmon Run?

The seasonal run of salmon can vary based on the species and climate conditions in an area. Generally, you can count on April through July for the best run in Alaska and British Columbia. Most salmon runs are over by the early fall.

Where Is The Salmon Run?

Throughout North America, salmon runs have been documented in every state except Hawaii and Alaska. In Canada, you can find salmon along the Pacific coast of B.C., through Washington State down to Oregon, much of Idaho and down to central California. You can also find salmon runs in British Columbia, but the timing of the run is much later than elsewhere. The best times to photograph a salmon run are generally from March through July.

What Do You Photograph?

In Alaska, there are three types of salmon: coho, pink and chum. All three species migrate upstream to the stream where they spawn in late spring and early summer. While there’s no specific time for arriving to their spawning grounds, they typically leave the stream by mid-to-late June. I’ve seen a pink salmon run in June and July, but it’s not likely to get the best images.

A coho salmon run is most dramatic when they’re at their peak population. This is usually during late June or early July. I like to arrive very early in the morning before most of the tourists have arrived. The best time to photograph coho salmon is when they’re jumping and splashing as they fight their way up the stream.

Best States To Photograph The Salmon Run

The Pacific Northwest is the place to go for the best salmon. British Columbia is the main home of the coho salmon. If you head north up Highway 99 from Seattle along the coast, you’ll find some great places to photograph coho salmon and other anadromous fish.

Alaska is the main place to see pink salmon. In Prince William Sound, you can see them in small streams and estuaries. If you head out of Seward, the main town in Prince William Sound, you’ll find dozens of places along the coast and river banks to photograph salmon. Some areas are closed during certain time periods because of the risk of bear activity, so be sure to check with local parks services about pet regulations.

Washington State also has locations where salmon run up creeks and streams. Some of the best locations in the state are along the Skagit and Sauk rivers. Both rivers have hatcheries where salmon go to spawn and then return to the river. You can get great images of salmon leaping from pools in the river as well as jumping over fish ladders built into dams.

Oregon also has several locations where you can photograph salmon, including along McKenzie River and other coastal streams. Unfortunately, many of these locations are fished very heavily and there’s a big risk of running into other photographers.

Tips For Photographing the Salmon Run

When you get to a location, scout it out before the salmon arrive. You should know where the salmon spawn and where they’ll linger after they return. In some locations, that information can be found on the National Geographic site , but details of each location are constantly changing.

Try to get up early in the morning when they’re expected.  Besides finding fewer people, you can also get the best natural light for your images. Be prepared to move around during the run, so you can also get shots of salmon jumping over dams or swimming around islands in the stream.

During a run, take breaks often to find new locations and work angles. The salmon will travel through an area many times. Trust me on this one. Take plenty of batteries with you, especially if you’re using a camera with big zoom lenses.

Don’t leave home without a waterproof bag for your camera.

Also, watch out for bears. You will see them in many areas where salmon are present. Especially if you’re with other photographers, be alert while taking pictures of the salmon. That’s when you’ll be especially conspicuous and vulnerable to bears who want to protect their food supply.

Finally, if you’re hoping to sell the images from your salmon run, make sure the water isn’t too busy in the image. Too many photos of fish jumping out of water can become boring and repetitive. You want to find unique angles and pictures that show the story of salmon surviving to spawn.

Conclusion

There you have it. If you happen to be in the Pacific Northwest during the salmon run, you can follow the local experts and try to get great images of the salmon.