Even in the hottest month of one of the region's hottest and driest years, Bear Creek can still rear wild steelhead for the Rogue River — something it was incapable of doing during a similar warm and low-water year just 23 years ago.
Fish biologist Dan VanDyke scrambles under Medford's McAndrews Road bridge to find Bear Creek barely a trickle of itself.
The creek dribbles past two sleeping transients and through a rocky chute, its warm and turbid waters chock-full of contaminants that generate a word of warning to volunteer Jim Ferguson as the pair splash downstream.
"If you have open wounds, you wouldn't want to put your hands in the water," says VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist.
Ferguson thrusts a thin net into a little pool, yielding a small largemouth bass and two fathead minnows, both non-native to the creek.
Then VanDyke takes a turn, eyeing a cut bank where the tea-colored water actually gurgles. He pulls the net out, spies the silvery 3-inch fish and lets out a hoot that wakes the bridge denizens.
"Yes! It's a steelhead," he says. "This is a miraculous fish."
The discovery shows that even when crippled by drought and wrought with dirt and contaminants, Medford's signature stream that was once a summer wasteland to rearing wild steelhead is far healthier now than it was more than two decades ago.
VanDyke is in the midst of recreating a fish inventory done in Bear Creek in 1991 during the last drought cycle that showed not only no wild juvenile salmon rearing within Medford city limits, but no native fish in the creek for 12.5 miles, from Phoenix to the Rogue River.
Where only red-sided shiners, bass, crappie and other non-native warmwater fish were found 23 years ago, the more finicky native steelhead are again summering in Medford despite dangerously low flows under record heat.
"The most stressful time of year for fish in one of the most stressful years, and it's still producing steelhead," VanDyke says. "I honestly didn't know what to expect. I didn't think anything was going to make it."
Bear Creek drains more than 350 square miles of Jackson County and historically has been home to winter steelhead, coho salmon and fall chinook that spawned in the main-stem or in tributaries and reared throughout the basin. But the 27-mile creek that begins near Emigrant Lake and flows into the Rogue near White City also is the region's storm drain and sewer.
In the 1980s, water quality was so poor that "Mr. Yuk" signs were placed at entry points warning people against water contact.
The high temperatures, lack of dissolved oxygen and sediments from storm drain flows and irrigation returns made steelhead life difficult.
Young steelhead were forced to migrate upstream into reaches to find pockets of the cool, clean water they need to survive. The lower stretch was uninhabitable in August 1991.
Since then, myriad fish-enhancement and water-quality projects, plus tighter environmental restrictions, have taken Bear Creek off life support.
Removing non-native blackberries and replacing them with native plants has helped stabilize creek banks and shade the water from the crippling sun that in 1991 triggered temperatures of up to 80 degrees — lethal to the cold-water-loving steelhead.
Removal of fish-passage impediments like Jackson Street dam also were boons to wild salmon and steelhead habitat, says Frances Oyung, coordinator of the Bear Creek Watershed Council, which spearheads much of the creek's improvement projects.
Oyung shadowed VanDyke and Ferguson on Friday as they sampled four sites included in the 1991 survey.
Just upstream of the McAndrews Bridge, VanDyke captured two smaller steelhead likely born this spring. The first steelhead was probably a year old, halfway through the freshwater rearing cycle before heading to sea.
VanDyke and Ferguson also discovered juvenile steelhead across from Bear Creek Park and near the mouth of a small stream that flows into the creek near Barnett Road — all fishless spots in 1991.
VanDyke plans to spot-check as many as a half-dozen other sites, with an eye on the lower reaches of the creek where water quality — particularly temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels — typically is the creek's worst.
Finding fish in three spots of the creek devoid of any salmon or steelhead 23 years ago is improvement, Oyung says.
It's incremental but on the right path, like how a 400-pound man is after losing 100 pounds — he's skinnier, but he's still not skinny.
"It's never going to be a robust fishery here," Oyung says. "But it can support these steelhead. And if we're not contributing nasty water to the Rogue, that's good, too."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.