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Strange Job Title: Fish Watcher 

Lee Spencer stands guard at the banks of Steamboat Creek. Photo by Brian Jennings.

Lee Spencer stands guard at the banks of Steamboat Creek. Photo by Brian Jennings.

Lee Spencer has one of the most unusual job titles in Oregon—Fish Watcher. For the past 18 years Spencer has kept watch over thousands of returning summer steelhead in Steamboat Creek, a tributary of the upper Umpqua River System. Every May Spencer returns to his trailer headquarters along the banks of the Steamboat. He has constructed a make-shift lean-to where he sits and watches steelhead returning to the waters where they were spawned—completing a life cycle that has continued for thousands, if not millions, of years.

"These are summer steelhead. They leave the ocean in May or June with 25 percent more fat in their system, and they spawn in February or March," he explains. The fish feed very sparsely on their long journey from the Pacific Ocean during that 10-month period.

From his shelter, hundreds of steelhead can be seen pooling in the clear water below. When they left that pool four years earlier they were only about three inches long. Now they average 28 inches in length and weigh about 8 pounds. August and September are the months when they reach this pool and sit. The pool provides them with clean, cool water as they await the cooler rains of fall and winter before resuming their migration upriver to spawn.

The pool where the fish are holding is historically known as the "dynamite hole". Spencer calls it the Big Bend Pool, but he tells us of poachers in decades past who used dynamite to kills hundreds of steelhead. For years, Steamboat Creek has been off limits to fishing and mining in an effort to keep its waters healthy for these native fish. But hundreds of pooling fish are still a great temptation for many.

Spencer had volunteered to watch over the fish many years ago when groups such as the Upper Umpqua Foundation and the Steamboaters Club scheduled volunteers to guard the creek against poaching. Scheduling volunteers became a nightmare. It was too much to ask of volunteers because it required them to be on duty from early May to early December. Finally a solution was found. A stipend was offered to cover the costs of a watchman, and Lee Spencer, an avid steelhead Umpqua river fly fisherman, was offered the job. He accepted it on a one-year trial. It's now been 18 years of protecting thousands of wild steelhead.

"I've not had face-to-face time with a poacher," he says, but he does tell of a poaching incident as recently as this summer in a hole downstream from the Big Bend Pool.

Spencer says there is a very good reason to protect the wild summer steelhead. "The Steamboat basin, excluding Canton Creek, may be the ultimate home to as many as 30 percent of the wild steelhead that enter the North Umpqua." It is one of only a handful of rivers left in Oregon that hold wild steelhead in its waters.

The North Umpqua is a major tributary of the Umpqua River, flowing over 100 miles through southwestern Oregon. Its rugged basalt canyons are surrounded by Douglas fir forests. The river is considered a prime international destination for fly fishermen. Presidents, governors, movie stars, and famous authors—including western writer Zane Gray—have fished its waters.

Across from the current location of the Steamboat Inn on the Umpqua, a river trail used by Gray to set up his fish camps in the 1930's can still be hiked by today's fisherman. As early as June, when the summer run is just beginning, fishermen of all nationalities can be seen at popular pools along the banks of the river.

Why does Lee Spencer come back year after year to watch these fish? "I would have to say I believe that it is primarily something that feels right. It's clearly necessary. The pool holds hundreds of steelhead, and that is simply too much for some people to handle," he explains. Spencer says there needs to be someone on watch—guarding against poachers—all the time, and he hopes to be able to continue as the creek's watchman for more years to come.

Efforts are underway to further protect the Steamboat and its wild fish. Senators Wyden and Merkley have introduced legislation to designate more than 100,000 acres of the basin as the "Frank Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary." The sanctuary would be named after an iconic 93-year old fisherman and conservationist who lives near the Steamboat Inn and still fishes the North Umpqua.

The legislation would require the US Forest Service to manage the Steamboat Basin to enhance the riparian habitat for the fish by potentially reducing road densities and logging in sensitive areas. Lee Spencer is a strong proponent of this legislation, and he shared his vision for the basin for the next 100 years. "I would expect that the forests around here would have recovered from the heyday of industrial clear-cut logging, and the overall temperature of the streams and the river would be cooler for the fish."

For the past 18 years, Lee Spencer has watched wild steelhead in the Steamboat Creek in SW Oregon. There is a real reason he does this for nearly 8 months each year. Let Lee Spencer explain why in this report from Brian Jennings.

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