State fish biologist Chuck Fustish dips his net into a special fish trap to discover two of the Rogue River basin’s most storied critters are inside.
The two tiny fish are juvenile summer steelhead-to-be, infant varieties of the fish hallowed by Zane Grey and classified as a species that helps make the Rogue basin unique.
But these fish are not in the Rogue River waters extolled by Grey. They are taking winter refuge in Larson Creek amid the garbage, mud and chunks of concrete that are signatures of this intermittent east Medford stream.
“People see a stream and don’t see any water in it in the summer, but that doesn’t mean fish don’t use it,” says Fustish, from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Larson Creek may not be much to look at. It might not even flow during summer months.
But the creek, and dozens of others like it between Grants Pass and Shady Cove, are helping rear some of the thousands of native salmon, steelhead and other species that turn the Rogue into coastal Oregon’s best producer of wild salmon.
Larson Creek is the first of dozens of Rogue Valley urban streams where Fustish and others will search for fish during winter inventories planned over the next five years.
Biologists believe streams like Larson Creek are important winter refuges for native salmon and steelhead looking for more quiet waters with the Rogue and its bigger tributaries like Bear Creek running high and brown after storms.
“We’ve always thought that juvenile salmon are using these small streams in winter for rearing habitat when flows are high,” Fustish says. “But that’s never been documented.
“This could teach us things we don’t already know about which species use urban tributaries and how important they are,” he says.
This past month, the Larson Creek trap has yielded three wild coho, a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, and 15 wild rainbow trout — they aren’t officially summer steelhead until they migrate to the ocean.
“So far, it looks like there’s a lot more fish there than anyone’s ever imagined,” Fustish says.
Fustish, along with volunteer Phil Hager of Central Point, has built and installed these traps — called “hoop traps” because of their cylindrical design — in lower Larson Creek and along Military Slough, a stretch of marshy waters along the ODFW’s Denman Wildlife Area in the heart of the White City industrial area.
Plans are to branch the surveys out to two Cave Junction creeks where wild coho salmon have been spotted, as well as one or two creeks in Grants Pass, perhaps the Fruitdale area, Fustish says.
Other key Bear Creek tributaries in the Medford area set for sampling include Griffin Creek and Jackson Creek.
Eagle Point resident Bob Hunter, the staff attorney for the group WaterWatch of Oregon, welcomes the surveys as a way to show all waterways play a role in salmon health, regardless of how unimpressive they may appear.
“It’s so easy to overlook their value,” Hunter says. “They’re small and in the late summer or early fall, they might not even have any water. But they play a role.”
Strapped for cash, Fustish is recruiting a dozen or so volunteers to check the traps daily during winter freshets and every other day in the lulls between storms when fish are less apt to migrate. The volunteers will be trained on identifying the captured juvenile fish, which are measure and released in the creeks where they are found.
The Larson Creek trap is set to collect fish moving upstream. That trapping will continue to Memorial Day.
“We may turn them around then and see what downstream migrants we can collect,” Fustish says.
While all the captured fish will be tallied, the surveys are focusing on summer steelhead because biologists know the bulk of summer steelhead juveniles use small streams that dry up at some time during the year, Fustish says.
Larson Creek surveys also have led to the discovery of two minnow species normally found in pet shops but never before documented living in the Rogue basin, Fustish says. Biologists this summer found fathead minnows and ruby red fathead minnows living in the creek, likely dumped there from a household aquarium, Fustish says.
The minnows appeared to be “doing well” and reproducing, causing concern that the exotic fish could expand and threaten to overtake native fish and amphibious species, Fustish says.
Fustish and Hager also are dragging thin-mesh nets called seines through urban creek pools to count the fish they catch and release.
The pair also are checking culverts and other fish-passage barriers in hopes of making them more salmon-friendly as well, Fustish says.
Biologists across Western Oregon increasingly have turned toward improving habitat and passage in urban streams as part of Oregon’s plan for improving watersheds with salmon in them.
And Fustish’ message to city-dwellers is that they ought to go a little easy on those little creeks that trickle behind their house and past the strip mall.
“It’s a real eye-opener when you see how many fish use these creeks,” Fustish says. “So when you wash your car, paint your house or use herbicides, don’t dump them in a drain,” Fustish says. “Because all that flows right here, to the creeks.”