Chinook salmon make an early return to Bear Creek

Wild fall chinook salmon are returning early and often to Bear Creek, triggering an extra few weeks for area residents to see some of the Rogue River's largest fauna at the tail end of their life cycle.

Naturalist Jim Hutchins, who is the creek's unofficial salmon-counter, says this year's return of the all-wild run has reached downtown Medford the earliest he's seen in 20 years of counting — a full two weeks ahead of normal.

Last week's rains raised and cooled the creek far earlier than normal, drawing enough big adults from the Rogue that Hutchins has tallied almost half of last year's entire count a week before he counted his first one last year.

"They're here in force and they're moving," Hutchins says. "They could be up as far as Talent now.

"It's pretty exciting," he says. "We haven't had them this early before.

Hutchins last weekend spied 40 of the big salmon finning up the creek in downtown Medford, then added a half-dozen more during his counts today.

The counts are not scientific, but they are used as an index to judge the relative strength of each year's return, which gets area residents excited again about living in salmon country.

Salmon-spotting along the Bear Creek Greenway has become a popular participatory sport, with at least eight excellent locales to spy the fish in their natural environs.

Hikers and cyclists can eye them during their regular routines, while sneaker-footed trekkers can join organized viewing hikes in the Ashland and Talent areas.

Frances Oyung, Bear Creek Watershed Council coordinator, will lead a viewing hike at 3 p.m. Saturday at Ashland's North Mountain Park as part of the Bear Creek Salmon Festival. KS Wild staff ecologist Rich Nawa will lead a one-mile hike from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, and Sunday, Oct. 20, to see spawning salmon in Lynn Newbry Park.

The salmon can be seen spawning in tail-outs just above riffles or in long flats such as those upstream of the Main Street Bridge or along Hawthorne Park in downtown Medford. Their egg nests, called redds, are depressions in the gravel that look lighter and cleaner than the silt-laden gravel around them.

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.

— Mark Freeman

Read more in Saturday's Mail Tribune.

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