[From the short documentary film “Pass Creek” (1968). Created by Dick Snyder and Hal Riney in cooperation with the North Umpqua Steamboaters and Frank Moore.]

The summer steelhead is a fly fisherman’s fish. 

In late spring, when the rivers turn low and clear, the fish returned from the sea. There aren’t many of them. Of the hundreds of western rivers and streams that support a winter run of the sea-run rainbow, only a few will host the summer fish in any number. One of those rivers is Oregon’s Umpqua River. Cutting its path to the Pacific through the volcanic rock of the Central Oregon cascades, the Umqua is a wild and exceptionally beautiful stream for the fishermen. It is almost unique in its year-round clarity, it’s reliable run of strong summer steelhead, and it’s more than 35 miles of preserved fly-fishing water. 

The north fork of the Umpqua was Zane Grey’s river but he never wrote about it. The Umqua was a great stream and he didn’t want to see it ruined. Even then men were watching their rivers begin to die. Too many fishermen; too few fish. 

Zane Grey wouldn’t have liked what’s been done to the river. They dammed it and dynamited it and carved the highway out of its bank. But the North Umpqua is still a great river and the steelhead still run there. So far, whatever man has been able to do to the river hasn’t managed to kill the fish. Fishermen still fish from the ledges, wade deep in Wright Creek and the log pool, and climb out early to be the first through the camp water.

The Umpqua is a big, tough river. But there may be a way to kill it yet. Just above Steamboat – the place where Zane Grey had his camp – a tributary called Steamboat Creek joins the north fork. That’s where the fish come from. In midsummer, the steelhead begin to move into the protected waters of Steamboat Creek to gather and rest in the deep pools. And in the winter, in the gravel beds of the rain-swollen creek and its tributary streams, more than half of the Umpqua steelhead population is spawned. Only after feeding and growing in these clear cold waters for two full years, do the young fish drift down to the sea.


The steelhead’s road is also the logger’s road. Mile for mile, they make their way together through the timbered valleys of the Umpqua Watershed. They have to share the same roads because they share the same trees. One of the roads led to Pass Creek. Pass Creek is a tributary of the Steamboat Creek system that feeds the Umpqua. It was a typical steelhead spawning stream in the summer of 1966. Alder and vine maple mixed with firs covered the stream and protected it from the sun. The land was marked for logging. A road was laid out and under the supervision of its owners, the Bureau of Land Management Department of Interior [BLM], the loggers went to work. They finished in the spring of 1968. 

The method for taking the timber at Pass Creek is called clear cutting. It’s a standard logging practice. In many cases, clear cutting is the only practical way to harvest the trees and it can be done without any serious damage to the streams. A narrow strip left standing on both sides of the creek bed can preserve the spawning waters. But it takes some effort.

No one made the effort at Pass Creek. 

The steelhead needed trees to provide shade to keep the waters cool. They took all the shade, exposed to the sun – the water grows too warm for the small trout and the food that remains will be taken by dace and other scrap fish that thrive in the warmer waters. The steelhead needed only enough trees to keep the stream from flooding. A 200-foot strip on either side would have been enough. But the loggers took the timber and they took it the easy way. 

In the fall, the cat roads moving down the paths of the feeder streams and into the creek, will drain tons of mud into the water. The soil above loosened by logs dragged downhill will silt the spawning gravel for miles downstream. The steelhead need the rocks and trees to protect the banks of Pass Creek. But the cats moved them out.

When the floods come, the banks will be washed away and the stream stripped of its gravel. The fish may still come to spawn if the creek isn’t blocked by the slash now piled on its banks. But if the eggs aren’t washed out by a flood, they’ll probably suffocate under the silt. 

The BLM put the road on the creek because it was easier. The logs were dragged downhill because it was easier. They ran cat roads across the creek because it was easier. This section of Pass Creek was destroyed because it was easier – and perhaps a little more profitable than it would have been to let it live. 

Even if Pass Creek dies, the Umpqua will still be a great river. But there are dozens of little streams like Pass Creek, that flow into other streams, that flow into others, before they reach the Umpqua. Together, those streams are the Umpqua. They nourish it and cool it, give it its water and its fish, and each year in the places no one sees, new logging eats away the trees along those creeks in the hills above the river. Grizzly Creek. Trapper Creek. Canton Creek. 

Each year the waters grow warmer and each year more streams die. If the steelhead no longer run in the Umpqua, no great harm will be done. There will still be other rivers. And fishermen can find them and win, for a while, the race with pollution, and needless dams, and thoughtlessly planned roads, and careless logging. 

When those rivers are destroyed, they can leave them too, and find others. Until the time comes for the fish and the fishermen when there’s no place left to go. 

From the short documentary film “Pass Creek” (1968). Created by Dick Snyder and Hal Riney in cooperation with the North Umpqua Steamboaters and Frank Moore.

https://media.oregonstate.edu/media/pass_creek,_1968_(fv_p_273)/0_tmanepqa

Hal Riney and Dick Snider, advertising executives and fishermen, produced the film and donated it to Oregon State University.

For more information about this video, see the Guide to Pass Creek Motion Picture Film Collection, 1968-1993 at:
http://nwda-db.orbiscascade.org/findaid/ark:/80444/xv40512