(Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, Reporter Aaron Kunz describes his pursuit of underwater footage of sockeye salmon returning to their Idaho spawning grounds.)
STANLEY, Idaho — By mid-August, the evening and morning temperatures here hover around 31 degrees. At least that’s what the built-in temperature gauge on the green Idaho Public Television Tahoe told us. The air temperature was colder than the water in the nearby Salmon River and Redfish Lake, causing an early morning mist on the water surface.
Two photographers with Idaho Public Television and I are here to photograph the beautiful and often elusive Idaho sockeye salmon for an Outdoor Idaho set to air in 2012. We brought two high-definition underwater video cameras and two standard high-def video cameras to cover all angles during the two days we were scheduled to shoot.
Snake River sockeye salmon were on the brink of extinction 20 years ago when just one returned to the natural spawning grounds. They’re still listed by the federal government as an endangered species. But on this day there are eight bright red sockeye swimming just a quarter mile from Redfish Lake inside the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Overnight, they would swim into a trap set by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game so the agency can track, monitor, and continue an effort to preserve the genetics of this federally protected species.
Mike Peterson with Idaho Fish and Game says most people believe his agency is working to recover sockeye but so far they have only been working on preserving the genetics so far. He hopes in a few years the department can transition to a recovery mission. He’d also like to see a hatchery built here at 6,547-feet elevation.
To capture video of the sockeye, we planted one of the two underwater cameras on the bottom of the stream to catch the salmon as they passed over the camera on their way upstream. The second underwater camera was attached to a long painter’s pole so photographer Pat Metzler could follow their movements from the side and above. The water here is amazingly clear; we could easily see the stream bed 2 feet below.
Photographer Jay Krajic and I shot from above the water using polarized lenses to make the pictures just as clear as one can get. This is an all-HD shoot using both tapes and newer memory cards to store the footage. At night we would back up the memory cards on a laptop computer to store and view the footage. One difficulty with shooting with these underwater cameras is not being able to see what we are shooting. You hope it’s getting the job done but we wouldn’t know until the end of the shoot. We did miss a few shots because salmon kept running into the camera or the camera would run out of battery.
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