Scientist studies steelhead in Bear Creek

Though Chuck Fustish pulls his chest waders on before stepping into Hamilton Creek, he needs only ankle boots to keep dry in this seemingly sorry excuse for a creek.

The sliver of water flowing through Fustish's fish trap toward Hamilton Creek's confluence with Bear Creek has zero appeal to a wild steelhead.

But when this week's snowstorms turn to rainstorms, Hamilton Creek will be full of water and full of fish, an important if not occasional cog in the world of wild salmon and steelhead in the Rogue River basin.

"Who would think streams like this have fish in them?" says Fustish, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist. "But they do. Once the streams start to flow, they do."

Hamilton Creek in Ashland is one of five seasonal creeks that Fustish will survey this winter in his quest to understand just how far up a creek local steelhead go in the snow.

The traps will allow Fustish to determine whether, when and to what extent juvenile salmon and coho salmon rely on Hamilton's intermittent flows as a refuge from Bear Creek during storms.

Studies at 10 similar creeks scattered throughout the Rogue and Bear Creek basins during the previous three winters all have showed that even the most overlooked of tributaries can be the right place at the right time for these fish.

"The public may not be aware these streams are important to juvenile steelhead during winter freshets," Fustish says.

"Steelhead are so genetically pliable," he says. "As soon as water comes into these tributaries, they'll run up and be happy as can be."

The public in recent years has begun to take greater notice of life within these urban streams, even though they often appear to be little more than moist ditches at times, says Frances Oyung, coordinator of the Bear Creek Watershed Council.

Oyung, who lives near Larson Creek in Medford, has shown neighborhood kids the infant steelhead that take refuge there in fall while Bar Creek runs low and warm. Those same kids then take their parents to view the spectacle.

"You look at some of these creeks and think, 'what's the big deal?' " Oyung says. "They do provide an important function. They're just not glamorous.

"If people get more of a connection to this, they might understand it more."

Juvenile salmon and steelhead can spend up to two years in fresh water before heading to the ocean, where they put on most of their weight before returning as adults.

In the Bear Creek basin, the trapping has shown that the juveniles move around in search of usable habitat at different times.

Fustish is in the fourth winter of a five-year study meant to map fish use in urban streams of the upper Rogue River basin, particularly those within the Bear Creek drainage surrounded by urban development.

Other traps will be installed in Mays and Mystery creeks within the Evans Creek drainage and on Mingus Creek, which flows into Bear Creek in Central Point.

Thursday's foray into Hamilton Creek, however, was fruitless.

The creek was so low from a lack of melting snow that nary a fish was trapped.

"Too cold," Fustish says. "Any fish in his right mind would stay home.

"But next week, I'd expect some pretty good flows and fish will be moving up."

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