leaping salmon

spawning male salmon ice sculpture design

about this design

This design could also be called “spawning salmon” as it depicts a clearly male salmon in mid-leap, probably in an effort to return to the waters of his birth. Some species of salmon make heroic efforts to return to their spawning grounds, sometimes swimming hundreds of miles upriver, resulting in climbs of thousands of feet in altitude. I was prompted to design this piece when I was asked if I had a salmon or trout design and found that I had none. (Well, actually, I had one, shown below, but it was lacking in a few areas.) The new design is still a bit rough, and it requires a large weld and a particular sculpting approach. But I like it quite a bit more as it does a better job of capturing the salmon’s instinctual imperative to return to the spawning grounds to reproduce before it’s too late.

salmon ice carving design
What I found when I looked in my files for a salmon design; a little weak, I’d say

spawning male salmon ice sculpture design, reverse view
a reverse view of the spawning male salmon and definitely an improvement over the earlier design

about salmon

Skip this section if you’re not curious about the unusual salmon life cycle.

For most discussions, salmon are divided into two basic groups: Atlantic and Pacific. The Atlantic salmon group is composed of Atlantic salmon and several other fish that end with “trout.” The Pacific salmon group, on the other hand, contains several recognizable species of salmon: sockeye, pink, Chinook (King), and Coho, along with a few others. (The design above is based primarily on a male sockeye salmon.) Most Pacific salmon are anadromous, meaning that they spend portions of their lives in both freshwater and saltwater. They are born in freshwater streams, where they grow until they are old enough to move downstream. After a time, they mature into “smolts” and they move downriver to brackish estuaries, where seawater mixes with the river water. Here is where they make their transition from freshwater to saltwater. This requires some significant physiological changes so that their bodies can handle the differences in salinity. Once they’ve made the transition, they move out into the ocean. While in the ocean, they feed, gaining size and weight to ready themselves for their eventual return to their spawning grounds (unless they get caught or eaten, of course). They might spend 1 to 7 years in the ocean. Eventually, they mature and get ready for their journey back to the stream where they were born.



As they begin the journey to return to the spawning grounds and enter freshwater, salmon can undergo profound morphological changes; so much so that they don’t even look like the same fish anymore. Males undergo the most radical change. The male’s jaw gets a characteristic curvature (called a kype), they change color (sockeye turn bright red), and they might also develop a hump. (The kype and the hump are reflected in the ice sculpture design.)

Female salmon do not show the same morphological changes as the males, but their bodies also undergo changes as they get ready to reproduce. They produce thousands of eggs that they will deposit in the gravel of the stream bed, once they’ve made it to their spawning grounds. Salmon apparently return to their spawning grounds through olfactory memory. They may also be sensitive to magnetic fields, which could help them find their way home too. After the female has laid her eggs, the males fertilize the deposited eggs. After reproduction, both the males and females die, their energy spent and their life cycle complete.

Salmon are considered a keystone species, meaning that they have an unusually large effect on their surrounding environment. They are responsible for transporting large amounts of carbon and nitrogen from the ocean upriver and eventually onto land. As they make their exhausting return to their spawning grounds, bears catch them and eat them. However, the bears frequently only eat about half of the fish and leave the rest to be eaten by other animals or decay in the forest, thus adding vital nutrients to the soil. Salmon that have spawned often die in the streams and, as long as the currents aren’t too strong, their bodies become nutrients for their growing offspring

Oncorhynchus nerka (sockeye salmon) drawing by Timothy Knepp
a bright red sockeye salmon as depicted by Timothy Knepp of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

salmon life cycle video

Still curious about the unusual salmon life cycle? This video pretty much covers all the bases.


how mirrored spawning salmon ice sculptures might look
how a pair of salmon sculptures might look

sculpting the salmon design

To create an ice sculpture that has the right “wow” effect, you want to sculpt a life-like, dynamic piece. To that end, the salmon is shown in mid-leap and extends quite a ways over the edge of the base. This means that you have to sculpt it in a specific way so that it doesn’t tip over. A sequence like the following would work:

  • Cut the base piece free and surface it for welding. (with a nailboard, for example)
  • Cut out the silhouette of the fish and wave while the block stand upright.
  • Begin to sculpt and shape only the TOP part of the fish; basically from the middle of the fish up to his head. Your goal here is to make this part of the fish much lighter, which will make it much less top-heavy.
  • Once you’ve carved away a the top of the fish, lay the sculpture down on its side and cut the angled base.
  • Prepare the angled base surface for welding.
  • Weld the fish to the base you cut initially, preferably with the aluminum welding technique.
  • Now that the sculpture is stable, continue shaping and finishing it until you are happy with the sculpture. (If you’re a perfectionist, this could take a while.)

notes on the templates

The salmon design is designed to be cut from a standard Clinebell-style ice block. I’ve included templates for both right and left-facing salmon designs. They could also be used as front and back templates, although the water and pectoral fins wouldn’t match up perfectly. I usually blow up my templates to 38”x19” for ice blocks that should measure 40”x”20”; the extra inch of space gives me a little wiggle room. The dotted line on the base piece simply indicates the location and angle where you could trim the base. But it’s useful to leave the base intact until the weld is complete; it’s more stable that way.

spawning male salmon ice sculpture template


spawning male salmon ice sculpture design, reverse view

If you have any questions about this piece, email me or comment below. If you would like to use this ice sculpture design or any other design on this site, please check the design usage guidelines. The design collection page lists designs on the site. Should you decide to carve this piece, I’d love to see pictures of how it turns out!

related links

Here are some similarly fishy ice designs that you might be interested in.

manta ray ice carving    sea turtle ice carving    seahorse ice carving

yellowfin tuna ice carving    reef shark ice carving    angelfish ice carving
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