When I got the assignment to photograph salmon on the Saranac and Boquet rivers, I was excited about the possibility of photographing the fish but realistic about getting some images of them. I’d been out on many wildlife assignments in the past and had come away emptyhanded.
And these fish weren’t in abundance. Our articles about them were about efforts people were making to to assist the fish in coming back. On the Saranac River, anglers were lobbying for the removal of the Imperial Mills Dam to allow for the salmon to get further upstream. On the Boquet, the story was about the status of salmon after the removal of a dam. Either way, these fish weren’t thriving. This wasn’t Alaska, someone said to me, as I was doing some research into the fish to learn their habits and where I might have the best chance to photograph them.
About this series
Throughout November, we’re publishing a series of stories about the effect dams have had on two of the parks’ important rivers, the Boquet and the Saranac.
As beautiful as these rivers are and as wild as they seem, dams have changed them, blocking the natural movement of fish for decades and, in fact, centuries.
The first few days in the field in late September didn’t inspire confidence. Writer Tim Rowland and I met up with some anglers on the Saranac River. The water was extremely low, and the fishermen seemed pretty deflated by that fact. Instead of enthusiastically targeting salmon at their regular spot near SUNY Plattsburgh, they fished for fall fish near the mouth of the river. On the Boquet, it was more of the same. Writer Ry Rivard and I met up with U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff in Willsboro, with the hope they would net some fish as part of their survey work. That didn’t happen.
We needed rain. The salmon would start up the river once we got a big rain, people told me. Finally, in early October, it poured. The next day U.S. Fish and Wildlife netted a large salmon. The day after that, they netted 10. Things were turning around. I was able to get some photos of the salmon being released by the scientists. However, I still needed photos of salmon swimming upstream on their own.
Later that week, I returned to the Boquet in Willsboro to try my luck at getting some images of fish in a wild setting. Finally, after talking to an angler, I got the lead I needed. He mentioned there was a spot where the fish gathered before heading upriver. When I visited the spot, I saw some fins poking above the surface of the water. Shortly afterward, I saw a fish jump into the air, trying to get past the small cascade into the rapids above. I had found the spot I was looking for.
Over the next couple of weeks, I returned to the spot to get images of the fish and videos. What I wound up witnessing was how much these salmon were struggling to get upriver, a key part of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff was studying. The scientists were trying to determine how many of the salmon were able to get past the series of cascades in Willsboro. What I witnessed was that the majority of the fish would get swept back downstream by rapids. But some did appear to have success. Those that made it through seemed to shoot through the cascades like torpedoes, sneaking under the falls rather than jumping into the air.
But the fish were determined. One fish shot through the rapids only to get its head stuck in a cup-sized hole in the rock slab river bottom. For a few minutes, the fish stayed there in the few inches of water, peering at me with one eye. Finally, it freed itself and got swept downstream, only to have to start over.
Another time, I witnessed a salmon make a valiant effort to get upstream. It shot past a cascade full of momentum only to get off course and shoot into a crevice on the side of the river, where it got stuck. Fish can’t back up apparently. The fish stayed that way for more than 10 minutes.
Most of the time, the fish seemed active in the late afternoon. One angler who had been fishing the river for decades told me the salmon start heading upriver after the sun. And anglers were catching large fish, many appeared to be in the 8 to 10 pound range.
From what I heard from anglers and witnessed, the salmon run on the Boquet has potential to rebound with time, as long as fishing pressure remains modest there. I witnessed several large fish being caught and heard stories of others being landed . When I started this assignment, I was told this wasn’t Alaska and not to expect to see many fish. They were right. The Boquet may not be full of fish like the rivers up north, but I saw enough salmon to believe the river has the potential to thrive.