The Chignik River has two genetically distinct strains of Sockeye Salmon. The first-run fish, which might begin showing up as early as late April but which really don’t appear in significant numbers until June and continue entering the river through the end of July, are distinguished by their startlingly blue backs. From sometime late in July through September, a second run of Sockeyes ascends The Chignik. These later fish tend to run a little larger than the early fish and are distinguished by their marine green backs.
It would be difficult to overstate the eagerness that sweeps through the village as springtime nets are set in anticipation of the year’s first Sockeyes. In so many ways, these fish are the lifeblood of The Lake. A fish-counting weir, established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is put in place at the end of May. By mid-June, thousands of fresh Sockeyes are counted each day as spring transitions into summer.
I’ve come to think of getting good photographic captures of fish as the toughest wildlife assignment. Bright light plays havoc on their shiny flanks. Dingy water makes obtaining a clear image impossible. Even perfectly translucent water rapidly absorbs light. Attacked by a variety of mammalian, avian and piscine predators, they’re wary, ever-watchful, often skittish subjects. Holding a fish out of water presents its own challenges, as squirming seems to be a nearly universal fish characteristic. And a fish out of water is just that – a being out of its natural element.
On a visit to the river on June 19, 2020, finding this blueback Sockeye in clear, shallow water and not in a disposition to flee presented a rare opportunity. Using different cameras and lenses, Barbra and I both composed several low-angle shots in order to capture the eye and flanks of this fish, but we ended up preferring this overhead perspective which we think really tells the story of The Chignik’s early-run bluebacks and the beginning of summer. (Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8, 1/200 at f/8, 48mm, ISO 400)