Shoppers driving into the Rogue Valley Mall parking lot in Medford take turns wondering just why the white-haired guy wearing waders and carrying a PVC walking stick is staring into the chocolate yuck known as Bear Creek.
Then two big, male fall chinook salmon, fighting for the right to spawn with an adjacent female, flail their tails in the air and splash creek water skyward.
The Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center will hold a series of guided hikes to view spawning fall chinook salmon in Bear Creek.
Saturday, Oct. 20: 2 to 3 p.m. at Jefferson Nature Center at US Cellular Community Park, Medford.
Sunday, Oct. 21: 1 to 3 p.m. at Lynn Newbry Park, Talent
Saturday, Oct. 27: 1 to 3 p.m. at Lynn Newbry Park, Talent
Times and locations have been corrected.
"The water clarity's not very good, but you can see them working," says Jim Hutchins, a Jacksonville naturalist who has been logging Bear Creek fish counts since 1994. "Most of them look bigger than three feet long.
"The fish I've been seeing are bigger than last year," he says. "But, of course, I'm a fisherman."
Skirting Interstate 5 and running through several Rogue Valley cities, Bear Creek appears dormant and less than pristine most of the time. But as fall progresses it starts to come alive as the Rogue River basin's biggest salmon come back home to spawn in their urban environment.
The creek is both a sewer system and a major spawning and rearing habitat for fall chinook, which are now in the peak of their fall spawn — in full view of wildlife voyeurs from Central Point to Ashland.
And it doesn't take a pair of waders to check them out.
There are at least eight good public-access points along Bear Creek — from the tops of downtown Medford bridges to creekside parks in Phoenix and Talent — where wildlife viewers can watch chinook as they lay and fertilize eggs in gravel nests called redds.
Ashland Creek, a tributary of Bear Creek, is also welcoming home its first fall chinook in three decades, where the fish are spawning in gravels spruced up for them in Ashland's North Mountain Park.
Salmon spotting along the Bear Creek Greenway has become a popular participatory sport. Hikers and cyclists can eye them during their regular routines, while sneaker-footed trekkers can join organized viewing hikes scheduled for this weekend in the Ashland and Talent areas.
"It's a charismatic animal," says France Oyung, coordinator of the Bear Creek Watershed Council, which works to improve the creek's salmon habitat. "It's hard for people to look at that and not think it's great.
"It's our number one mega-fauna," Oyung says. "We got rid of the grizzlies."
Fall chinook eggs hatch each spring when tiny sac fry emerge from spawning gravels to begin their uphill fight toward smolt-hood.
In late summer, the 5-inch-long smolts migrate down the Rogue to the ocean, where they spend as many as five years living as both predator and prey before returning to repeat this eons-old cycle.
They can be seen spawning in tail-outs just above riffles or in long flats like those upstream of the Main Street Bridge or along Hawthorne Park in downtown Medford. Redds are depressions in the gravel that look lighter and cleaner than the silt-laden gravels around them.
Fish as long as a man's leg and into the 40-pound class represent the cream of the viewing crop.
"They're amazing," Oyung says. "Going over those rock ledges, their bodies are halfway out of the water."
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists say there is no good estimate of how many wild fall chinook spawn in the Bear Creek basin. But estimates place them anywhere from a few hundred to 1,500 or more. They primarily spawn in Bear Creek, but a few have been reported in east Medford's Larson and Lone Pine creeks and in lower Anderson Creek east of Phoenix.
Considered a salmon nursery, Bear Creek and its tributaries below Ashland's Reeder Reservoir are closed to angling year-round, and it is illegal to harm or harass the creek's fish.
So the only interactions people can have with these salmon are with eyes, polarized sunglasses, oohs and aahs.
Hutchins has spent the past 18 years counting the salmon and redds he spies each fall at the same locations. While his counts are not considered hard data, comparing them offers a glimpse into any given year's relative run strength.
Last year he counted 109 chinook, or about twice his annual average. Tops was the 2003 count of 283 chinook, while the four spotted in 1999 represent Hutchins' all-time low.
Last Friday, Hutchins counted 26 fall chinook behind Rogue Valley Mall and another dozen in downtown Medford.
He'll be at it again today, walking the stretch of creek adjacent to the mall's parking lot and visiting his finned friends beneath the McAndrews Bridge to see how many new redds he can spot.
It's always fun," Hutchins says. "It never gets old."