ASHLAND — Tom Ziemba was never quite sure what lurked in the gurgling stream behind the back fence of his Ashland home. "I knew there were fish in Ashland Creek, but I had no idea what they were," Ziemba says.
Then he became the one-man volunteer squad to monitor a fish trap placed in the stream behind his house, and since December he's caught, counted and released young steelhead, coho salmon and cutthroat trout.
Two weeks ago, he was pleasantly splashed by an 181/2;-inch adult steelhead he released from the trap. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I hadn't caught a fish that good in a couple years."
This three-month-old trapping effort on lower Ashland Creek is providing the latest proof that urban streams here are home to wild salmon and steelhead despite living under the heavy footprint of the city.
Adult fall chinook salmon were discovered in September spawning in Bear Creek gravel within the confines of Ashland's North Mountain Park for the first time in 30 years. That same month, biologists sank an underwater camera in an Ashland Creek pool within Lithia Park and streamed video of young wild steelhead finning about to the wonder of park visitors.
And now a new Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife survey of lower Ashland Creek is turning up evidence that a creek that serves as everything from the park's aesthetic anchor to part of the city's sewer system can still produce wild fish.
"It may be a sewer, but it's a pretty healthy sewer, based on what we're seeing," says Chuck Fustish, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist inventorying urban streams throughout the upper and middle portions of the Rogue River basin. "It's somewhat surprising."
Like many tributaries of Bear Creek, Ashland's namesake creek has the community's fingerprints all over it.
It is the showcase of Lithia Park, and the source of the city's drinking water and even some hydroelectric power. But the creek also is siphoned for irrigation, captures surface runoff from city storm drains, has degraded riparian zones, at times becomes contaminated with E. coli bacteria in summers, and is used to flush effluent from the city's water-treatment plant.
But the creek has a role in the life cycles of wild steelhead and wild coho, as well. While serving as spawning and year-round rearing habitat, it also provides refuge for small fish fleeing a roiling Bear Creek during freshets.
It wasn't until Fustish ventured to the park during nearly triple-digit temperature days in September and sank the camera into the pool that the creek's secrets were revealed.
"We had the video up on a screen for people to watch (steelhead) swimming around in that pool," Fustish says. "Knowing that, we figured it would be a good idea to trap Ashland Creek to see what we have in there."
The traps are designed to capture migrating juveniles in the creek, so they can be counted and released.
Fustish has used these traps to survey many Rogue River tributary streams throughout Jackson and Josephine counties.
Fustish enlisted the help of Ziemba, who received a crash course in fish identification. They sank the trap in the creek behind Ziemba's house, and Ziemba checks it every three days.
So far, the trap has yielded 18 juvenile steelhead, eight juvenile coho, two cutthroat and that one adult steelhead.
However, the creek is wide enough at the trap site, Fustish figures, that as many as 85 percent of the migrants miss the trap.
Perhaps as important as what the trap catches is what it hasn't.
So far, it's turned out no shiners, goldfish, pikeminnow or other non-native species discovered in other trapping efforts in the Bear Creek basin, Fustish says.
Ziemba dons hip waders and walks into the creek, removing, identifying, measuring and releasing each fish inside. He uses a small dip net fixed to the end of a broken fishing rod for the smaller fish. He also now carries an anglers' landing net each trip to the trap.
"That's in case I catch another big one," he says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email at email@example.com.