Alll about salmon

Tues 3rd Feb 2015

Well I’ve finally finishing filming for the ITV programme I’ve been working on for over 12 months now. It’s been great working with the film crew and to be back with ITV. I can hardly believe it’s 22 years since I last worked with them.

Anyway, I’m really pleased with all the things we’ve done out and about on Exmoor. They’re going to call the programme “Johnny Kingdom’s Wild Exmoor” and I can’t wait for it to come out, sometime in the summer I hope. It will be shown as in four half hours programmes and cover the four seasons up on the moor.

I want to focus on the salmon for this months’ blog. Right through October and November I worked hard trying to film a pair of these beautiful fish working the river. I’ll explain what that means in a minute. First I must tell you how to tell the difference between the male and female salmon. Well the male is usually bigger and grows a crook on his bottom lip in the breeding season. The point of it goes right up into the roof of his mouth.

As the breeding season approaches, the salmon swim up river, jumping over weirs to get to their breeding ground. It’s important that the rivers are high at this time of year so that the fish can get over the weirs.

Once a male and female have paired up, they dig a deep pit, tailing it back to a shallow, still area of water. This is what I mean by working the river and it is a special thing to see but not easy to find.

The pit can be as big as two yards around and is five to six inches deep. They might work on it for several days, lying on their sides shovelling up the gravel on the river bed. When it’s ready they choose a still spot where the eggs won’t get washed away. The female than lays her eggs and the male fertilises them. They them repeat the shovelling action with their tails and bury the eggs. The babies that hatch and survive will return to the same stretch of river in five years time to do the same thing themselves.

As I said, I spent a lot of time over the autumn looking for pair of salmon that I could film working the river. I didn’t have much luck until one day when I was by the bridge in Brayford and there in the water was a pair working. One was a beautiful 3ft long salmon, probably weighing 14-15lb. Unfortunately it had the fungus disease they sometimes get, but this didn’t stop the pair completing the important task nature called to do. I put the waterproof camera down in the water very carefully and managed to film them. I can’t tell you how pleased I was. It will be on the ITV film so you’ll be able to see for yourself why it’s such a special thing to watch.

After one success I really wanted another and one day during the winter I drove all over Exmoor to places I knew I’d find salmon. I must have driven over a hundred miles but had no luck at all. On my way home I went back to my own land and blow me, I saw three salmon building a pit in the river there. It was around 4pm by then and too dark to film. So I got up early the next day and went back. Right where those fish had been working was stood a heron but no sign of those salmon any more. A reckon he had at least one of them. That’s how things go sometimes.

I have another salmon story for you but this one happened years ago. You’ll already know it if you’ve read my book “Johnny Kingdom: A Wild Life on Exmoor”.

You probably know that I used to be a poacher. “One for the pot won’t hurt,” my dad used to say. I later mended my ways and as I still liked a bit of salmon I decided to get a rod and licence and fish within the law. Off I went with the rod to Barnstaple to fish on the free water on the Taw where I knew there’d be some salmon.

I got there early on a summer morning and met a farmer who told me where to go. Well I cross the two fields like he said, picked a spot by the river and cast my spinner. It drifted down to a lovely big pool but nothing took the bait. Time went by and still nothing. “This is a pretty slow way to catch a salmon,” I thought. “I’d have had one by now the way I used to do it.”

Then suddenly I got a bite. Off shot the salmon and I had to run down the bank to keep up with him. I must have run a good hundred yards. Finally he tired and came into the bank where I was able to pull him out. I was so pleased.

As I started to fish again a man came up and started talking to me. He knew who I was. “Any luck Johnny,” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve caught a nice salmon.”

“Can I see it?”

I showed him.

“That’s not a salmon Johnny,” he said. “That’s a kelt, a spent out salmon that’s been up the river to spawn and has survived and is recovering ready to head back out to sea.”

Now I thought all the salmon died after they’d spawned, which a lot do.

“I should take you to court for catching that one Johnny,” the man said.

Luckily he let me off but I was so upset about it that I have never fished the river with a rod again.

Before I go I just want to mention the birds that are coming to our gardens because it’s really important to feed them at this time of year. February has started cold and is due to stay cold so they are going to need all the help they can get to survive. I recommend sunflower seeds for the finches and niger seeds are good as well.

Greenfinches are scarce around here at the moment but there are plenty of goldfinches and siskins. I think I saw a red poll today, which is always a special sight.

The photo with this month’s blog is my new hide, built by Billy and Mark. They’ve done a great job and I’m so pleased with it. I’ll be telling you more about it in the coming months.