It’s the hottest day of the year so far, and a small garter snake decides to take a swim in Steamboat Creek. The thin creature wriggles its way lackadaisically across a deep green pool.
It doesn’t seem to notice the 170 adult steelhead hovering just a few feet below the surface.
"It's really trying to tempt one of those steelhead to go grab it," says John Kober, executive director of the conservation group Pacific Rivers.
The fish are clustered in the deep water, all facing up stream, and nearly motionless. Kober watches from the bank in anticipation of a strike, but the snakes makes it to the other side and disappears among the rocks on shore.
Turns out these large fish don’t care about the snake because they don’t eat when they’re waiting to spawn. And that’s what they do here in the cold waters of Big Bend Pool.
“This is crucial to what is one of the last best places for wild summer steelhead. And Steamboat Creek is the major tributary that supports spawning and rearing of these incredible fish,” Kober says.
Kober’s group has been working on legislation to set aside Big Bend Pool and 100,000 acres in the Steamboat Creek watershed as a steelhead sanctuary. The bill would make it a priority to preserve fish and the cold water they depend on.
The Summer Run
The fish in Big Bend Pool are some of the estimated 5,000 wild summer steelhead that return to the Umpqua River from the ocean each year. They lay their eggs in the tributaries of Steamboat and other creeks when the winter rains come. Because summer steelhead make the journey from the ocean early in the season, they need cool water to hang out in through the warm summer months.
“If the water temperatures are too warm their metabolism speeds up and they have to live off of stored energy that brought back from the ocean,” says Jeff Dose, a retired fishery biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “If their metabolism gets too high they use up all their energy and they won’t have anything left for their spawning or they may even die before they spawn.”
The reason Big Bend Pool is such an important refuge for steelhead is because of its namesake creek, which flows into Steamboat a few hundred yards upstream. The tributary is fed mostly by snowmelt that remains icy cold as it flows through fissures in high-elevation rock – a geologic remnant of the area’s volcanic past.
“What helps this stream flow all summer long with cold water is the stored water from the snow melt that went down into the basalt,” Dose says.
The snowmelt flows underground for miles and miles. The water doesn’t have a chance to warm up until it emerges from springs.
“Because of this cold water coming out of Big Bend into that holding pool down there, it cools the pool considerably,” he says. “That effect transpires all the way down, about four miles down Steamboat Creek, it’s cooler.”
Throughout the Northwest, stream temperatures are expected to continue to rise as climate change reduces snowpack and stream flows. Under this scenario, Big Bend Pool and the other cold-water pockets on Steamboat Creek become all the more important.
The groups trying to protect this place are naming the proposed sanctuary after the most famous fisherman in these parts, 93-year-old Frank Moore.
Moore started fishing the Umpqua River and fighting to protect it after he returned from service in World War II. Even to this day, he’s amazed by the steelhead’s ability to locate and return to Steamboat Creek to spawn.
“You know the good Lord works in marvelous ways. But how they know enough to be able to do that, you know sense that. We don’t understand everything, do we?”
Moore was part of a campaign that passed the first statewide logging regulations in the 1970s – and not a moment too late. Intensive logging had decimated much of the steelhead habitat here.
“They’re just an unbelievable creature. It’s amazing what they’ve put up with over the years, over the centuries probably, and still survive,” Moore says.
Now the area is in recovery, and doing pretty well. The watershed has been set aside as an old-growth reserve under the Northwest Forest Plan, so it already is protected. But there’s concern that without additional Congressional action, a future administration could revoke protections.
“If that happens, then we could lose it all,” says Dean Finnerty of Trout Unlimited.
The steelhead sanctuary legislation, introduced by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, has made it through Senate committee mark-up, and in the process lost some of its original teeth.
The Sanctuary has been officially renamed a “Special Management Area” – a land use designation that is already legally defined. But organizers still refer to it as the “Frank Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary.” Language to ban motorized recreation in the watershed was also removed.
None of the timber companies operating in the region have come out in opposition to proposed sanctuary, which no doubt improves its chances of passage.
No companion bill has been introduced in the House.
The graduate school
There’s a large sign at the turn-off to Steamboat Creek on Oregon’s North Umpqua River near Roseburg. It’s worn and dirty and reads, “No angling or mining.”
“That’s the one blessing of the dedication of Steamboat Creek and its tributaries for no angling. Because it does protect those that move up into the stream all summer until the spawning season,” Moore says.
Although Steamboat Creek itself is off-limits to fishing – and has been for decades – fishermen know the habitat provided there is the backbone of the strong steelhead run on the North Umpqua. It supports recreation and the tourism economy.
“They call it the graduate school of steelhead fly fishing,” says Finnerty who, when he’s not working for Trout Unlimited, moonlights as a fishing guide.
The wading is difficult and the casts are long, but the fishing is fantastic.
“So anglers from all over the world come here to test their mettle. They want to know if can do what it takes to catch a fish on a fly in the North Umpqua,” he says.
And even if they don’t hook a fish, they can console themselves with a trip to Big Bend Pool to see one of the world's largest congregations of rare summer steelhead.