Rory champion photography


One last leap: Salmon at Shin

The only time a live salmon spends out of water is when its been caught by a predator, fooled by an angler’s fly, and, most spectacularly, leaping up waterfalls to reach their spawning ground.

Many fish jump out of the water, but watching this herculean effort by the salmon as part of its last and most important acts in its life has a romanticism which is up there with the most poignant of wildlife phenomenon. For beyond the rapids lie the brooks, streams and burns that provide the stage for the beginning of new life and which adult salmon expend their last ounces of energy to breed and then, for 95% of them, die.

One of the best places in the UK to watch salmon leaping up rapids is at the Falls of Shin, near Lairg in Sutherland. It's a spectacle not to be missed, and arguably one of the best wildlife-watching activities in the UK.

The Falls of Shin

Whilst the Falls of Shin is a relatively small rapid, the geology forms a narrow gully turning a gurgling mountain rivulet into a formidable torrent

Why do salmon leap?

Salmon need to return to their breeding grounds of the upper reaches of many of the UK's largest rivers, however many of these rivers have steep, narrow and fast-flowing parts which are simply too difficult to swim up in one go. Instead, they will attempt to bypass the hardest parts by leaping out of the water and over the torrents.

Salmon leaping at the Falls of Shin

Caught in the torrent: The last major obstacle for the salmon before swimming to the upper reaches of the River Shin

At Shin, many fish are seen leaping out towards the edges of the main flow, where the water directly upstream is slacker and they can wriggle into the next pool or eddy to rest before continuing on up river.

I watched as fish after fish braved the cascade, often noticing the same individual popping out of the water sometimes slowly rotating in the water, this great slab of silver muscle, where it had overcooked its trajectory. As I watched the deep pool immediately below the rapids, I imagined a staging area seething with salmon large and small as they waited their turn to take this  leap of faith and disappear into an unknown world above, their only guidance what's engrained in their psyche borne from countless generations before them making the same journey.

Salmon leaping up the Falls of Shin

Salmon leaping up the Falls of Shin

When to go

Salmon 'run' from April until October, however the best months are generally August and September, when you're virtually guaranteed sightings. It's not uncommon to see several fish make their leap at the same time. In this relatively narrow confluence, several landed in the very margins of the rapids -  I wondered whether one might eventually land on my lap!

The River Shin in late summer

The River Shin in late summer

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