OUTDOOR JOURNAL: Salmon show
Jim Hutchins stands in his waders with his eyes fixed on a sliver of Bear Creek that’s foaming like a rootbeer float as it gurgles over a concrete pipe spanning the creek beneath downtown Medford’s Jackson Street bridge.
Suddenly the froth erupts, and a wild fall chinook salmon the size of a man’s leg hurtles skyward and plops halfway up the 4-foot jump over the pipe. It fins and writhes against the current, its belly scraping the concrete before it musters enough power to dart over the obstruction and disappear into the upstream pool.
“Wow, look at that,” says Hutchins, an 82-year-old naturalist who is Bear Creek’s unofficial salmon counter. “It’s great to see that almost 90 percent of them are making it over the pipe, I hope.”
The all-but-forgotten sewer pipe and decades of erosion have created an impediment to wild chinook migrating in Bear Creek. But it also creates perhaps the best opportunity this month to see wild fall chinook salmon catching air on their way through Medford.
Watching wild chinook spawn in Bear Creek and lower Ashland Creek have become October spectacles from Medford to Ashland, and this year’s highlight has been chinook traversing this 4-foot jump en route to upstream spawning grounds.
Wild chinook normally move stealthily through downtown, usually evidenced just by swirls in the water or light Vs on the surface from dorsal fins cutting through the water.
But this year, the pipe presents an opportunity for people to get their eyes on wild chinook in these urban environs.
“It’s a real treat for people to see down here,” says Hutchins, a Jacksonville naturalist who’s been counting chinook in Bear Creek since 1994. “It’s a good view. Just sit on this log, watch for a half hour and you’ll probably see six to eight fish.”
The show might not last long, however. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is teaming with the city of Medford and others to get the pipe and another obstacle under the Jackson Creek bridge removed by next September.
The agencies this month expect to ask the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to fund a $40,000 engineering study to craft a pipe-removal plan that won’t lead to long-term erosion, which could threaten a key abutment to the Interstate 5 viaduct in Medford.
Chinook swam under the concrete and jumped the pipe last year, but this year’s jump is more difficult. The leap is higher and the pool immediately beneath it is more shallow, thus giving chinook less of a fish’s equivalent of a running start.
Also, the flows over the pipe are lower than last year. ODFW biologists have installed sandbags to funnel the flow into a tighter jumping area, and they’ve added a makeshift ladder made from sandbags and rocks on the pipe’s west side.
Adult chinook don’t appear to be using the ladder. But a close look will reveal the occasional wild juvenile steelhead jumping upstream through the ladder.
Juvenile steelhead regularly migrate up and down Bear Creek in search of cleaner, cooler water while taking refuge in tributaries such as Larson and Lazy creeks during freshets.
But it’s the big fish Hutchins is after.
Twice a week he walks stretches of Bear Creek to count chinook and chinook egg nests, called redds. The data is used as an index — comparisons for trends in returns instead of specific run numbers — and the trend is that wild fall chinook continue to return to Bear Creek despite the creek’s role as collector of the collective detritus of the Bear Creek Valley from Ashland through Central Point.
“There are still so many people who don’t believe there are chinook in Bear Creek at all,” Hutchins says. “So I’ll take them down here counting fish with me and say, ‘See? Right there? That’s a chinook.’
“I tell you,” he says. “I like counting fish more than fishing.”