- Associated Press - Monday, July 6, 2015

GOLD HILL, Ore. (AP) - Pete Samarin tramps up the dried bed of the Left Fork of Foots Creek, dust squirting with every step of his wading boots until he stops and squints into a shaded puddle the size of a welcome mat and barely much deeper.

His shadow causes the puddle’s surface to boil as tiny wild summer steelhead fry scramble with no place to escape this predator, not realizing Samarin is their savior.

“It’s crazy,” says Samarin, an assistant district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “You got five fish in there just barely hanging on.”

He runs a small aquarium net through the water until he captures all five of the fish. He plops them into a 5-gallon bucket for a 2-mile truck ride downstream and release into the Rogue River, the summer rearing refuge they’ve sought since May when drought isolated the upper creek stretches from the river.

Now, they face a 1-in-25 chance of surviving and returning as spawning adults in 2019. Had Samarin stepped past that puddle last week, they’d surely be dead by today.

They are the latest of more than 1,700 summer steelhead fry getting Samarin’s helping hand to the Rogue in less than a month.

“Even if you get 10 females to survive and return from our efforts, those 10 females can produce 25,000 little guys,” Samarin says. “That’s enough to keep this creek going. It all adds up.”

This one-man bucket brigade is a hands-on effort to salvage wild steelhead fry from two spawning and rearing creeks now disappearing amid record-low flows, easing the heavy hand of drought on key components of the Rogue’s wild steelhead populations.

Adult summer steelhead spawn anywhere from December through March in intermittent tributaries throughout the middle and upper Rogue basin, with the young emerging in the spring to enjoy the cool tributary waters. Eventually, they migrate downstream to the Rogue for two years of freshwater rearing until they grow large enough to head to the ocean as smolts.

They return to the lower Rogue the following year as “halfpounder” steelhead before heading back to sea to grow fat and fierce for their first spawning run one or two years later. That’s when they become the rare fish championed by anglers well before Zane Grey’s writings created a near mythical aura about them.

But real life in the Rogue Basin can be fickle, particularly when steelhead compete with water withdrawals for whatever snowpack and rainfall the upper basins in places like Foots Creek offer annually.

The young fry, ranging from 2.3 to 3.5 inches, migrate from the creeks to the Rogue from May into July, with most reaching the river before creek stretches dry up or flow intermittently underground. This year, however, drought has created isolated pools earlier, stranding far more fish than normal.

In Foots Creek, that means thousands of stranded fish this year, rather than a few hundred, Samarin says.

“I’ve never seen the creek this disconnected so early,” Samarin says.

The ODFW has identified Foots and Sardine creeks as two in need of fish-salvage now, with biologists eyeing nearby Kane Creek for salvage should its flows later drop and isolate steelhead as well.

Samarin wears an electric fish-shocking apparatus that he uses to stun fish in isolated creek pools. He then nets the woozy fry, who quickly revive in a bucket of cool creek water for eventual transport.

When Samarin finishes netting the steelhead from the small puddle, he turns to an adjacent and larger puddle where more steelhead fry are hiding under a root wad.

At 100 volts, Samarin’s fish-phaser is set on stun.

“There’s not enough (water) in there to hit it any harder,” Samarin says. “So at 100 volts, you have to be right on top of them so they don’t run away.”

Samarin works the angles and five minutes later, the bucket has close to two dozen freaked-out steelhead wondering what lay ahead.

“That’s enough time here,” Samarin says. “I’m sure there will be a lot more in the next pool.”

In the Rogue Basin, not all spawning creeks are created equal. A 1973 ODFW study by the basin’s famed biologist Fred Everest classified 91 wild summer steelhead spawning creeks, with only six listed as prime. Five of those prime streams are Rogue tributaries between the towns of Rogue River and Gold Hill and they include Foots, Kane and Sardine creeks.

Everest estimated each of those streams produces at least 1,000 adults annually. Though those numbers likely are lower four decades later, there’s no reason to believe that those creeks don’t retain their distinction as the Rogue’s wild summer steelhead bread basket.

“That’s why I can catch 300 fry in one pool in Sardine Creek in 35 minutes,” Samarin says. “I can’t get that many all day in other creeks.”

Samarin grabs his bucket and starts schlepping downstream in yet another stretch of parched creek bed to the next pool. Another 10 minutes in his final pool puts the bucket count at 96.

Earlier in the morning, he’d shocked and plucked 158 young steelhead from a larger pool upstream. That boosts the Foots Creek salvage to 1,706. A few more hours this week and the salvaged steelhead count easily will eclipse 2,000, Samarin says.

The latest 96, including those five skimmed from the puddle, get a bumpy ride down Foots Creek Road safely in a cooler strapped in Samarin’s pickup bed.

He pulls into the boat ramp at Valley of the Rogue State Park, where they get counted and returned to the bucket for the last leg of their wild ride.

Samarin wades into the Rogue, sinks the bucket in the water and simply turns it sideways. His little steelhead disciples fin away with a chance at creating a future that seemed impossible less than an hour earlier.

“Good luck,” he says.


Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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