A chinook salmon takes a rest Thursday after fighting for spawning territory in Bear Creek near The Expo. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Early rains mean backyard chinook

Spawning wild fall chinook salmon will be coming to backyard creeks from Central Point to Ashland this week as ideal water conditions will help spread the upper Rogue River's iconic fauna throughout the Bear Creek Basin.

Since rain swelled the creek two weeks ago, wild chinook have moved from the Rogue into Bear Creek early and often, even darting up tributaries that haven't seen chinook in years.

This latest storm front will do the same, plus give big chinook access to tributaries snaking through Medford and likely even into the very upper reaches of Bear Creek, biologists say.

"They'll probably be jumping at Emigrant Dam," says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist in charge of stream surveys here for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I wouldn't be surprised if people are saying there are fall chinook in Ashland Creek."

When storm flows ebb later in the week, people peeking over fences into east Medford's Lazy and Larson creeks will likely see some behemoth fish splashing about, Samarin says.

With peak spawning not happening until Halloween, urban residents could be in for a spawning show for several weeks if water flows cooperate.

Already a big chinook was seen and photographed splashing about in an unnamed tributary.

"They're so visible," Samarin says. "You get two 20-pound males and 14-pound female splashing around and making a racket, that's when the phone rings."

In fact, Samarin hopes people who see big chinook in streams where they haven't seen them before will call his office at 541-826-8774 to report the finding.

"We do want info on a sighting," he says. "And please leave them alone."

The fall spawn is the end of a journey that 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.

Despite its reputation as a warm, dirty creek and its role as conveyor belt for Ashland's treated effluent, Bear Creek is a fall chinook factory that Jacksonville naturalist Jim Hutchins indexes annually. 

Since 1994, the now 80-year-old Hutchins has strolled the creek regularly in October counting fish in a nonscientific tally, but it provides an index for year-to-year comparisons.

His counts average about 125 fish a year. He got near that in one day in Hawthorne Park last week just after the first storm.

"I counted 80, one every two minutes just zipping on up," Hutchins says. "I could have counted 200. And they're already all the way up to Talent."

Good early October rains are a rarity, so these recent events quite literally are the perfect storms to get fall chinook well-dispersed in the Bear Creek system.

While fall chinook spawn regularly in the mainstem of Bear Creek, they are opportunists that are more than willing to head into tiny backyard creeks during odd years when given the watery green light like they're getting right now.

"It doesn't matter where they spawn," Samarin says. "It's amazing. You don't have another animal like that."

— Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him at

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