KGW’S Outdoor Reporter, Grant McOmie recently tracked down the Last Wild run of wild winter steelhead in a remote corner of Northwest Oregon.
While on the surface it may sound like some sort of curious crazy race, it has little to do with one athlete versus another and more to do with the last wild run if steelhead in a remote river where the fish must jump for survival in a dramatic and breath-taking moment.
The Last Wild Run is in the middle of nowhere so you work up a sweat to reach it. It’s not an Olympic event, but it feels that way in steep, rocky country where one mis-step or a slip can cost you. There are no major roadways, no highways not even a gentle country road to reach the place where they live.
It’s inaccessible to the extreme and so you might consider Ian Fergusson something of a long distance champion at what he does – has done – each week for three months during the past 16 years. He hikes up to fifteen miles a day and peers into the North Fork for the Salmonberry River.
“From the landslides you have to climb over and the road washouts you must dodge, it’s not an easy stroll by any means," noted Fergusson.
He keeps tabs on something truly special for the Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife in the remote Salmonberry River Basin.
The river roars through the cleft in the ancient basalt rock in a heart-pounding moment and the wild steelhead are here too - swimming and jumping one after another.
“These are wild steelhead and what they do is really an athletic event and just an amazing spectacle to watch these fish jump one after the other, shouts Fergusson over the din of roaring water.
The North Fork of the Salmonberry is a river full of foamy falls and the fish must jump to survive.
It is the only way they can reach the safe water to spawn and yet somehow the wild steelhead’s parents must have survived to spawn. We count their successes – one after the other.
Steelhead are often called the 'street fighters' of the salmon world because they have to swim to the furthest, highest ends of the watershed and endure the toughest conditions that mother nature serves up.
“I just love this system and these fish,” said Fergusson with a beaming smile. “These fish are just so special to me. I used to fish the Salmonberry River a lot – but I don’t even do that anymore. I just come here just to count and watch these fish.”
It is remarkable that the fish are even here!
The Salmonberry River Canyon is gigantic, but it was destroyed when the successive Tillamook Burns devastated the canyon forest beginning 80 years ago.
“Year and years of erosion and silt washing into the river,” noted Fergusson.“No cover on the stream banks, much of it burned off and yet these fish managed to hold on during that period."
The fish not only held on, they thrived.
More impressive is the fact that there’s never been a hatchery on the river, so the last wild run of Salmonberry River steehead are truly rare.
You can count on one hand the number of Oregon streams that have them.
These days, the fish are protected by rules that allow catch and release angling in the main stem, but prohibits all angling in the tributaries.
Fergusson not only counts the fish that jump for survival, but he counts the “redds” or nests that the female steelhead gouges out of the gravel with their tails.
“It’s a light colored area – much lighter than the surrounding substrate and the eggs are buried right there,” he added.
Still, for all its remoteness, logging is nearby and clear cuts are closing in on other canyon walls.
That activity worries Fergusson and gives him even more motivation to collect data for ’s fish agency that hasn’t the manpower to regularly dedicate to such a distant river.
“We really count on volunteers like Ian,” said Chris Knutsen, the ODFW District Fish Biologist. “He and his friends who come in here regularly and help by telling us what’s going on in the watershed. He has a good handle on the biology, the ecology of north coast watersheds and he has a lot of valuable information to share. Clearly, he’s demonstrating that he cares about the resource.”
“I guess it’s because I wanted to help do something with the management of the resource, noted Fergusson. “These fish are very resilient and they have endured for many, many years and we hope they can keep doing it. If we do all we can to protect the places that are special, then maybe they can hang on.”
The volunteer fish counters want to make sure the Salmonberry River remains one of those streams.
“This is what I really love to do,” added Ferguson. “This - to me - is recreation. I come out here all day, slogging around in streams and counting fish, counting their redds, then I hike up here and watch this - this is just recreation for me. It's just astounding.”
For more information on how to volunteer on the Salmonberry River Steelhead project you can contact Northwest Steelheaders, Trout Unlimited or the Native Fish Society.
You can also call Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife STEP coordinator in the Tillamook office of ODFW @503-842-2741.