Majority of trapped young chinook finally escape Bear Creek

Mother Nature helps majority of trapped young chinook finally escape Bear Creek
A juvenile fall chinook, top right, swims in a seine along with half a dozen steelhead in Bear Creek.Jamie Lusch

Last week's unseasonable rains may have been just the ticket that young wild fall chinook salmon needed to get out of the drought-plagued Bear Creek and into the Rogue River.

Creek flows in downtown Medford quadrupled Friday, thanks largely to runoff from the previous day's rains, pushing the creek's flows from around 25 cubic feet per second to more than 100 cfs, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Thousands of young wild fall chinook had been trapped in creek pools through much of June, more than a month after their normal pass through downtown Medford toward summer rearing habitat in the Rogue River.

But a quick netting test done Wednesday afternoon in two downtown Medford pools showed only a few young chinook remain after the creek flows returned to pre-rain levels.

That's a good sign to Pete Samarin, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who caught hundreds of 3-inch chinook while using a net called a seine under the Jackson Street bridge in early June, when they weren't supposed to be there.

On Wednesday's run, he found none.

"They're gone," Samarin says.

But a concrete weir where the old Jackson Street dam used to be, a short distance downstream from the bridge, did yield two young chinook that didn't take advantage of last week's higher flows to flee the creek.

"That's too bad," Samarin says. "Still, we're not finding that many. So it seems most of the fish did get out of Bear Creek and into the Rogue River.

"I'm assuming they rode that wave of water out of here," he says.

For a rare change, not finding chinook in Bear Creek is a positive.

"We found steelhead, but the steelhead are here all summer," Samarin says. "You don't want to find that many chinook when temperatures are getting this hot and the flows are getting this low."

These offspring of wild chinook that spawned last fall in the creek and a few of its major tributaries typically flee Bear Creek en mass in April and May when the water levels drop and warm.

With this year's drought, the low and hot flows came early as irrigators began withdrawing water and Bear Creek Basin tributaries pumped far less water into the creek than normal.

It left the creek not flowing or barely flowing in some stretches, while the hot water conditions forced the young chinook to swim upstream in search of cooler environs instead of to the cool waters of the upper Rogue.

That left Samarin and other ODFW biologists concerned that they would have to net and move the young chinook to the Rogue to finish out their summer rearing before they head to the ocean as smolts.

Last week's rains apparently washed away those immediate concerns for the health of this year's batch of the creek's signature chinook.

"I think the tell-tale sign was no fish in that hole under the bridge," Samarin says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at

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