Bristol Bay Salmon & the Katmai Bears

One of my most popular Photography Trips is to head up to Alaska and visit the Brown Bears in Katmai National Park. This incredible journey takes us into the extremely remote Alaskan Peninsula which is completely inaccessible by road. The only access into this pristine wilderness is by small float-plane.

Alaska is home to 98 percent of the U.S Brown Bear population with the only other sizeable populations being in and around Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks in Montana and Wyoming. Katmai National Park alone is home to about 2000 wild Grizzly Bears. The best time of year to see these magnificent animals is between July and September when they are most active right before they start their hibernation in November.

On a typical trip into Katmai National Park we leave with thousands of incredible full-frame photographs of Brown Bears in their natural environment. But why are the bears there in such great numbers? It comes down to food. And the cool thing? That food is not you! It’s Salmon by the ton.

Katmai National Park and the greater Alaskan Peninsula are a part of the Bristol Bay Watershed. The salmon run in the Bristol Bay watershed contains habitat for numerous animal species including 29 species of fish, more than 190 species of bird and 40 different terrestrial mammals. All five species of Pacific Salmon call the area home – Sockeye, Coho, Chinook, Pink and Chum salmon all are represented in the fishery. However, the most important are the Sockeye Salmon. This large unspoiled region has the single largest overall Sockeye Salmon run in the world with over 46% of the world-wide total.

Katmai National Park and more specifically, Brooks Falls is only one of many places the salmon return to each year. Brooks Falls is a small waterfall feature on the Brooks River where Bears congregate to catch Salmon. Brooks River is a tributary of the much larger Naknek River system.

Salmon begin their life-cycle in these pristine freshwater streams, eventually migrating out to sea where they grow to adult size, and then return to their original freshwater homes to spawn and die. Salmon die after spawning – which happens in late summer / fall in Katmai. This is often a great time to photograph the Grizzlies as they gorge on post-spawned Sockeye Salmon floating back down the river.

The bears of Katmai are used to this abundant food source. They only eat part of the salmon when fish are abundant and this is known as “high grading” where they only eat the highest percentage of fat on the fish mainly the skin, brains and eggs of the salmon. This term comes from the mining world and refers to miners looking for high grade ore when supplies are abundant. As it relates to the bears it means they only use the choicest parts of the salmon for their diet and leave the rest for either weaker bears, scavengers or to rot. The reason for this is that when salmon are abundant the bears can selectively pick the best part. When times are bad they will eat the whole fish. The lean times typically happen when the fisheries are up and operational and/or there is a lack of fish due to environmental and human factors.

The average yearly Salmon run population in the Bristol Bay region is about 41 Million fish of which about 29 million are harvested by commercial fisheries. That leaves only 11 million fish to return to their native streams. Divide that by the plethora of small rivers and streams in the region and it begins to add pressure on the bear populations. About one million Salmon make it back into Naknek River and only about 200,000 to 400,000 end up in the Brooks River each summer.

While the bear population at Brooks Camp is still the most accessible in the world – the Katmai Bears are under pressure due to the increased harvest of fisheries, global warming and the increasingly larger portion of the Salmon run that humans harvest from massive fishing operations. As more and more fisheries are opened to meet the global human demand – that leaves less for the bears!

Hopefully the increasing popularity of Brown Bear viewing and photography in Katmai National Park will put pressure on the fisheries to maintain a healthy flow of Salmon into the Bristol Bay Region.

Join us to photograph one of the most interesting and awe-inspiring natural spectacles as the Bears clash over Salmon at Brooks Falls this year or next! Our Brown Bears of Katmai in the Fall Photography Tour & Workshop is a fantastic adventure as we float-plane into Naknek Lake and camp right alongside the lakeshore. Explore this wild Alaskan wilderness and photograph wild Grizzlies in their natural environment!


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