The migration patterns, timing and biological characteristics of wild Atlantic salmon Salmo salar smolts in the River Bush, Northern Ireland, were examined over the period 1978–2008. A distinct change in the timing of the smolt run was detected with progressively earlier emigration periods evident across the time series. The shift in run timing ranged from 3·6 to 4·8 days 10 years−1 for a range of standard migratory audit points. The timing of smolt emigration has been linked to ambient river temperature patterns. Distinct seasonal patterns were evident for biological characteristics of River Bush smolts with mean age and fork length decreasing throughout the emigration period. Marine survival patterns in 1 sea winter River Bush S. salar were strongly influenced by the run timing of the preceding smolt year such that later emigrating cohorts demonstrated increased survival. Possible mechanisms for this relationship based on local climatic variation have been explored, including the effect of potential thermal mismatch between freshwater and marine environments.