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A salmon works its way up Bear Creek at Hawthorne Park in Medford on Friday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Wild chinook making early splash in Bear Creek

Wild fall chinook salmon are making a very splashy public appearance this fall in Bear Creek.

Chinook are returning very early and very often to Bear Creek in numbers its unofficial fish counter hasn’t witnessed in more than 20 years of eyeballing salmon along the creek.

“It’s incredible,” naturalist Jim Hutchins said. “I saw a dozen pods of two to five fish move into downtown. There must be 100 salmon between Jackson Street and 10th Street. And we only counted 118 all of last year.

“I’ve never seen that many in downtown in one spot,” Hutchins said. “Never.”

The first component of Bear Creek’s salmon run typically runs up the creek from the Rogue River after the first rain of late September or early October.

This year they got a doozy in Wednesday’s steady, daylong downpour that dropped two inches of rain in town.

The ensuing runoff swelled Bear Creek tenfold. As it started to ebb Friday morning, the creek was alive with some of the Rogue’s bigger fauna working their way upstream to spawn.

The short falls beneath the Jackson Street bridge saw 10- to 25-pound chinook power their way upstream every few minutes — even under Friday’s midday sun.

Perhaps the best seat for their watery show, however, is along the Bear Creek Greenway in Hawthorne Park just north of Main Street.

Salmon jumped wildly there Friday at the concrete base for the temporary irrigation diversion that was removed earlier this month.

Hutchins says last year’s returns were two weeks earlier than normal, and this year’s run is a week ahead of that.

Hutchins will begin his fall salmon counts this week.

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.

While the splashy shows now are where the fall chinook need to jump or dart past an impediment, the focus of viewing by the end of the month will be on spawning beds from Ashland to Central Point.

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 long 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 most he's counted is 283 in 2004. The lowest is four in 1999.

“Who knows what it will be this year,” Hutchins says. “Maybe we saw half the run in one day.”

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.

The past two years, fall chinook were seen spawning in Ashland Creek.

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

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 mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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