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Chinook 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 telltale 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.

"Man oh man, that freshet got things going," he says.

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 Friday.

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.

"This creek is our legacy," says Forest Norris of Medford, who intercepted Hutchins during his counting trek up the creek near the Rogue Valley Mall. "Bear Creek is the lifeline of our community. To see it full of salmon is awesome."

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 that will be scheduled soon for the Ashland and Talent areas.

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.

Fish as long as a man's leg and into the 40-pound class represent the cream of the viewing crop.

The journey begins each spring when tiny sac fry emerge from spawning gravels to begin their uphill fight toward smolthood.

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.

Since 1994, Hutchins has strolled the creek regularly, throughout October, when the salmon move into the creek's shallows to spawn and die.

The highest he's counted is 283 in 2004. The lowest is four in 1999. Last year's entire count hit 115 chinook.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists say there is no good estimate of how many fall chinook spawn in the Bear Creek Basin. But estimates place them anywhere from a few hundred to 1,500 or more. A few have been reported in east Medford's Larson and Lone Pine creeks and in lower Anderson Creek east of Phoenix.

Last year, fall chinook were seen spawning in Ashland Creek for the first time in decades.

Bear Creek joins Little Butte Creek as the only two upper Rogue River sub-basins that support fall chinook, which primarily spawn in the main-stem Rogue as well as larger tributaries such as the Applegate and Illinois rivers.

"Bear Creek's probably the most important of the smaller tributaries fall chinook use," says Chuck Fustish, an ODFW fish biologist who works regularly in the basin. "Its ability to support a population of wild fall chinook in the winter months is evidence that Bear Creek isn't as bad as people think."

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, and oohs and aahs.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Chinook return to Bear Creek