Urban streams yielding wild steelhead

Oregon wildlife officials, volunteers track young fish

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MEDFORD, Ore. — A rivulet gurgling into Larson Creek along East Barnett Road is so overlooked that it doesn’t appear on most maps and doesn’t even have a name.

But it has wild steelhead.

Juvenile wild steelhead are taking refuge in this tiny little backyard creek with no riparian zone, proving once again even the Rogue River Basin’s most urbanized streams still have a little wild left in them.

The creek is the latest surveyed for wild steelhead by volunteers like Ken Foster, who use a basic trap to capture, mark and release wild juvenile steelhead and possibly even threatened coho salmon as part of a 12-year effort to understand the role these creeks play in wild Rogue fish production.

“I don’t think people understand there’s fish in here,” says Foster, a member of the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers Association. “We’ve only been here a few days and there are quite a few fish in here.”

Since the effort began in 2005, volunteers working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have set basic “hoop traps” in 38 streams throughout the Rogue Basin and discovered new wild salmon or steelhead — called salmonids — in 21 of them, says Ryan Battleson, the ODFW’s Salmon, Trout Enhancement Program biologist here.

Of those, six streams have been remapped to reflect confirmed salmonid presence, which could lead to better riparian protections as well as help them qualify for riparian habitat improvements that could bolster steelhead production, Battleson said.

Larson Creek is a key tributary to Bear Creek, which is the Rogue Basin’s most urbanized stream, yet still produces wild steelhead, chinook and coho as well as the most overlooked of Oregon’s anadromous fishes — Pacific lamprey.

During their two years in freshwater before heading to the ocean as smolts, juvenile wild steelhead migrate throughout the Bear Creek Basin depending upon the time of year. While small streams like this one usually run too low and warm to provide summer refuge, they are key hiding places in winter when the juveniles need to escape turbid flows.

“It’s an essential part of their life history,” Battleson says.

Last week brought the first proof of that in this stream.

Wednesday’s haul netted one wild steelhead, a 4-inch fish off which Battleson sliced a tiny portion of its tail so that, if caught again, it won’t be counted.