November 26, 2004
©The Register Guard - Used with permission
TRIANGLE LAKE - On this fall morning, the soft chatter of water over rock at Lake Creek is broken by a sudden thrashing-about.
A splash erupts as a 3-foot-long black body surfaces and surges upstream, churning a wake with its tail. The figure drifts a moment or two, jockeys for a better line against the relentless current, then surges forward.
Splash, surge, drift. Splash, surge, drift. A few more feet gained, in a journey that has covered 50 miles up the Siuslaw River from the Pacific Ocean.
These are the final few feet. The shadowy figure soon will succumb to age, but not before completing its purpose.
Thousands of chinook return
"There's a bittersweet sadness to the whole thing," said Nic Porter, 32, of Eugene. "A beautiful creature fighting at the end of its life."
Like many others, Porter, his wife and friends made it a point recently to see the seasonal return of fall chinook. Tens of thousands of them were born in the Siuslaw four years ago, traveled downriver to the Pacific, fed and grew, and have returned to spawn and die.
A dozen or more fish, weighing 20 pounds or more, can be seen at any one time pushing methodically upstream, sometimes splashing onlookers too close to the water's edge. In the still waters near the bank are clusters of pink eggs - defunct, perhaps, because they weren't buried.
Carcasses of salmon litter the surface of Fish Creek. Many have their tails cut off, a sign that state biologists counted them during the annual census.
Photos: Paul Carter / The Register-Guard
A bald eagle feasts on adult salmon in Whittaker Creek during the spawning run.
And there are the unmistakable stench and unforgettable sight of rotting adult salmon carcasses in the water and along the bank - grim visages with staring eyes and sharp-toothed jaws. These adults are food not just for their own young, but for insects, other animals and the forest itself.
"Salmon are the main means of nature bringing nutrients back into the upper parts of the watershed," said biologist Leo Poole of the Bureau of Land Management, Eugene district. "They do that by going out and feeding at the ocean, gathering nutrients and bringing it back, and they die, and those nutrients are redistributed through the watershed again."
Coho salmon count surges
The ubiquity of carcasses along Lake Creek suggests a plague, but in reality the runs are strong in the Siuslaw watershed, which covers 750 square miles from the headwaters near Lorane to Florence.
Coho salmon - generally smaller than chinook - have come back "extremely strong," said Bob Buckman, a midcoast biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. They run Lake Creek tributaries and Whittaker Creek near Walton through Christmas.
As recently as 1998, there were estimates of as few as 1,000 spawning coho year-round in the Siuslaw, but the count has surged to 57,000 in 2002 and 29,000 last year.
Chinook, meanwhile, number 20,000 to 25,000 - more than double the number before 1988, and the best numbers since 1952.
Multiple factors favor the fish, Buckman said: The coho was temporarily listed as a threatened species in 1998, prompting voluntary measures to improve habitat; ocean currents have shifted in recent years to provide better feeding; and for the chinook, which travel as far north as British Columbia and Alaska, stricter fishing regulations there have protected numbers.
"We're seeing some real favorable situations with the chinook and coho in the Siuslaw," Buckman said. "We have high abundance of both species."
Salmon help local economy
More salmon means more business up and down the river.
"With higher numbers of returning salmon, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife increases the allowable take," said Tom Kartrude, port manager of the Port of Siuslaw, which focuses on economic development in western Lane County. "That attracts not only local fishermen onto the water, but out-of-town fishermen. It draws in guides and has a significant trickle-down to commercial and retail, particularly lodging, food services, sporting goods and boat repair."
Some merchants hope that, with the resurgence of coho, officials soon will allow catching them in the Siuslaw. Coho that are accidentally caught here must be released unharmed, a tricky practice that can injure or kill the fish if done incorrectly, said Bill Pinkney, manager at The Sportsman store in Florence.
Coho are ravenous and easier to catch than chinook, Pinkney said, and easing restrictions would mean better fishing and more business.
"Opening up coho would be huge," he added. "People don't have to fish all day for them."
Some who are committed to the salmon's restoration agree that limited harvesting of coho would be acceptable if balanced against cyclical oceanic changes that threaten the fish.
"We came real close to losing them in the 1990s," said Charley Dewberry, an ecologist with the Pacific Rivers Council, a Eugene-based nonprofit organization devoted to restoration of Pacific salmon. "I'm not opposed to fishing them within reason, but the real issue is where we're going to be when the ocean goes in the tank again."
The harvesting of as many as 2,000 coho annually may be allowed in the Siuslaw once ocean conditions accommodate strong survival, Buckman of Fish & Wildlife said.
But "it's hard to predict when we'll get those ocean conditions," he added.
Balancing competing interests
At Lake Creek, a white fungus on many of the chinook - biologists call such fish "sorebacks" - indicates that the fish is breaking down as it puts its remaining energy into making the next generation, Buckman said.
Males compete or "joust" for the right to fertilize a female's eggs, sometimes while opportunistic younger "jacks" sneak in unnoticed. After a female lays eggs in an underwater gravel hole, a male shoots sperm into the hole and the female buries the eggs with her tail, beginning the creation process.
Teacher Gary Jensen of Pleasant Hill High School has been bringing students here for five years to explore how salmon livability is affected by food sources, water chemistry and the health of the riparian zone.
Jensen, a former forester, has seen the adjoining hills harvested and reforested, and he's known cattle to graze near the same creek thick with salmon.
He appreciates the delicate balance between salmon protection and historic agricultural and timber activities. In fact, a partnership of state agencies, nonprofits, timber companies and other landowners recently won an international award for restoration of the Siuslaw.
"It's a blending of a lot of the issues that we face today in our society," Jensen said. "The ability of people to come together and come up with solutions - that's a very positive example in that area."
WHERE TO GO
To see salmon that have returned from the ocean to spawn, pack a rain jacket, warm clothing and polarized sunglasses, leave the dog with a friend and head for the following spots. You can get near the water, but don't disturb the fish.
Lake Creek: Highway 36 to Triangle Lake, west of Eugene. Look for a BLM rest stop, parking area and bathroom on the north side of the road. Walk across the road to a walkway with guardrail, down a stairway to the "fish ladders," which help salmon bypass the falls below Triangle Lake.
Whittaker Creek: On Highway 126, eight miles west of Walton, take County Road 4390 to the south, for 1.5 miles. Take a right, cross a bridge and park outside the Whittaker Creek Recreation Site. Don't block the entrance.
SALMON BY THE NUMBERS
4 - Average age, in years, of a chinook salmon that returns to spawn and die
15 to 20 - Average weight, in pounds, of a chinook, but they can be more than 40 pounds
3 - Average length, in feet, of a chinook
50 - Miles traveled by chinook from the Pacific Ocean, where they live, back to Lake Creek and Whittaker Creek, where they were born
5,000 - Eggs laid by one female
1 - Fish born per egg, generally
97 to 99 - Percentage of fish that die before reaching maturity, because of natural and man-made obstacles