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 almost two weeks earlier than last year, when he spotted a record 404 of the largest of the Rogue salmon species.
Hutchins, who runs the nonprofit Oregon Stewardship to teach kids about nature, had South Medford High School students out Friday morning pulling blackberries along a stretch of the creek in downtown when they were interrupted by splashing.
"One kid said, 'Hey, look, there's a fish,' " Hutchins says. "No work got done after that. We were watching fish all morning."
Spying either their dorsal fins sticking out of the water or the enormous V-wakes moving upstream, Hutchins eyed a dozen groups of fish Friday morning between the Jackson Street and 10th Street bridges.
What likely got them going is a spike in Bear Creek flows after Wednesday's rains and the removal of the temporary Rogue River Irrigation District diversion dam alongside Hawthorne Park, Hutchins says.
Big salmon as long as a man's leg were seen darting over the diversion's remaining concrete base — one of a handful of downtown locations that make for easy salmon-spotting.
Fish into the 40-pound class represent the cream of the viewing crop.
"It's always pretty neat to see," he says.
This is Hutchins' 21st year as the creek's unofficial fish counter, with measurements ranging from last year's high to a low of four in 1999.
The counts are not scientific, but they are seen as an index for the relative strength of each year's return, and they help publicize ways for residents to see that Bear Creek and its turbid, urban-influenced flows really are a key part of salmon country.
"People have misconceptions about Bear Creek," says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who conducts spawning surveys annually on a sliver of Bear Creek near The Expo in Central Point.
"The chinook habitat is phenomenal," Samarin says. "There's a lot of spawning gravel in that stream."
Samarin says this week's fall chinook generally are "right on time" in their move from the ocean, up the Rogue River and then their big right turn into the mouth of Bear Creek.
"These fish can't wait to get into Bear Creek," he says. "And they're visible, so there's good numbers of them."
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, the 79-year-old Hutchins has strolled the creek regularly throughout October, when the salmon move into the creek's shallows to spawn and die. His counts average about 125 fish a year. They are bound for the entire span of Bear Creek, as well as lower Ashland Creek and other tributaries such as Larson Creek if enough water is available.
Hutchins says he sees peak numbers in early October, while ODFW surveys show peak spawning is late October and early November. That's when the chinook will be in shallow gravel flats digging egg nests called redds. Their fin-work is easy to spot because the redds form deep and clear depressions in the otherwise silted gravel.
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 the oohs and aahs the emanate from gawkers with every jump or splash.
"It's always pretty exciting to see," he says. "And the water's a little cleaner for some reason, so you can see more of them."