Lee Spencer and the steelhead of the North Umpqua
THE SUMMER OF 1998 was good to Lee Spencer. By fall he’d raised 77 steelhead to his fly on Oregon’s famed North Umpqua River, landing about half of them. (Spencer keeps meticulous notes.) Yet there was a problem. Of the fish he’d landed, three had died—two of them wild. He’d also once brought in a steelhead eyeball on his hook.
“I’d caught all of these fish on the surface, skating a muddler,” Spencer says. “I realized by then that I knew how to catch them, but I decided that the consequence of killing three steelhead and halfblinding another was too much. So I needed to figure out a way to keep fishing without doing that kind of damage.”
Spencer’s solution was to cut the points off his hooks. “I remember sitting at Frank and Jeanne Moore’s house, going through my cigar box of flies, and clipping the points off about 30 or 40 muddlers. Then I spent a month adjusting to the fact that I was never going to land a steelhead again.” What kind of man cuts the pointy end off his flies? The same kind of man that would take a seat above a steelhead spawning tributary in the middle of May, and not leave until the second week in December, as Spencer has done along the North Umpqua’s Steamboat Creek for the past 16 years. Since the spring of 1999— the year after his pointless hook revelation—Spencer has served as the full-time Fishwatch Caretaker for The North Umpqua Foundation, looking after some 400 to 800 wild summer steelhead that stop to rest in Big Bend Pool. By the time he takes his break this December, Spencer will have spent more than 3,000 days looking after some of the most cherished steelhead in North America.
“Nobody knew what to expect of this, including me,” Spencer says of that first summer. “I remember sitting here with my old dog, Sis, and after a couple of hours, it hit me: ‘OK, so I’m deterring poachers, but there aren’t a lot of poachers coming by when I’m here, so what exactly am I going to do with my time?’”
What he does now with his time, mostly, is watch over the fish, keep a detailed journal about Big Bend Pool, and spend a lot of time speaking to visitors. “I talk to about 1,500 people a year, and have for the past 10 years,” Spencer says. “It allows me to interpret the wild steelhead to the public, which I enjoy, and which I think is important, because there are lots of people interpreting the hatchery fish to the public—there’s been 130 years of that on the West Coast.”
The need for Spencer’s stewardship derives from a history of not-so-sportsmanlike removal of fish from Big Bend Pool, which sits about ten miles up Steamboat Creek from its confluence with the North Umpqua. The creek has been closed to angling since 1932, so it took a bit of time for Spencer to stop seeing every visitor as a threat. “I gradually realized that local people had been bringing their families up here for generations, just to see the fish. So not everyone who wasn’t a cop was a poacher. There were poachers who came up early on, and they were fairly easy to spot once I figured it out. But I stopped seeing them after year three or four.”
Big Bend Pool had formerly earned the name “Dynamite Pool.” From the late 1800s to the 1950s, a trail running right past the pool was the only way to get from Steamboat Falls to the Bohemian Mining District, upriver. But in the early ’50s, the decision was made to harvest timber from the upper part of the basin, which required extending the roads. By the ’50s, the pool was getting hammered.
“If you’re walking, you can take two or three steelhead, but you’re not going to carry more than that for 10 miles or whatever it was,”
Spencer says. “After the road went in, they could back up a car or truck and take whatever they wanted.” Spencer believes the pool may have been blown with dynamite as often as once or twice a year. “With industrial logging came industrial poaching,” he says. “Fortunately, the people at that time had no idea when the steelhead were running throughout the year, so they could take out part of a population, but not all of it.” He is quick to add, however, that poachers aren’t the only ones to have caused “adaptive behavior changes” in Steamboat Creek steelhead. “Lest we get too proud of ourselves, I am certain that even back then there were flyfishermen coming up here periodically. They probably thought that they were being harmless—and perhaps they were harmless, relatively speaking. But if you’re fucking with Mother Nature, you’re fucking with Her. There is no such thing as innocuous contact—not from flyfishing, not from a stick of dynamite.”
Don’t be misled by all this talk of “innocuous contact” and “adaptive behavior” and hook-less flies—Spencer is not some self-righteous dogooder. Nor is he preachy or anti-angling or holier-than-thou. He’s one of us. The man once spent 102 days in a North Umpqua steelhead camp. In 1992, he spent 80 days fishing the river while getting paid as an on-call archeologist. He may, at times, seem almost too protective of the fish, but Lee Spencer loves nothing more than casting his spey rod for steelhead.
Born in Portland’s Emanuel Hospital in 1950, Spencer was raised in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. Both his parents were teachers. He has a sister a year older and a brother a year younger. Though he’s been engaged three times, Spencer never married. He attended U.C. Berkeley as an undergrad, and earned his Master’s in anthropology from the University of Oregon. He spends his winters in Placitas, New Mexico, and returns to Big Bend Pool each spring.
As the Fishwatch Caretaker, Spencer receives a small per diem from The North Umpqua Foundation (TNUF) that covers his “rational needs.” TNUF also provides a car, a trailer to live in, and $1,000 a month for five months each winter, which allows him to “hunker down and write my notes.” (These notes are available on TNUF’s website.) The Forest Service also contributes funds via Title II of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, originally passed in 2000, which authorizes projects on federal lands that “protect, restore, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat.”
“Lee’s work is critical to the Fishwatch mission,” says Rich Grost, president of TNUF. “It directly protects vulnerable wild steelhead, but also educates visitors, and documents fish movement and behavior.” Some of Spencer’s observations on fish behavior are particularly interesting. “There’s only been two instances in 16 years when I’ve seen a steelhead jump to take an insect,” he says. “I think they mostly jump just to see what’s above the water and see what’s going on.” Some visitors assume that the steelhead in Big Bend Pool are there because it’s deep, but the main reason is temperature. The fish have come up the creek when the water temps were conducive to them moving around and breathing, but by late May or early June, the water in Steamboat Creek proper is out of their comfort zone, and by the end of July, it’s lethal. Big Bend Creek enters Steamboat Creek just above the pool, and during the hottest part of the year, Big Bend Creek is as much as 16 degrees cooler, with that water flowing only 100 yards before entering the pool. Once the fall freshets start, Steamboat Creek temps drop back into steelhead comfort zone, so the fish can leave Big Bend, and head to the upper spawning water. “Water temperature is the critical variable,” says Spencer.
While many people have influenced him over the years, Spencer credits his friend, TNUF board member Jim Van Loen, with getting him to take the position at Big Bend Pool. “The reason I’m up here for TNUF is because of Jim Van Loen,” Spencer says. “He is the one who got me to do this.”
Spencer first met Van Loen in 1981, on his first trip to the North Umpqua, with his friend Gary Fouts. “On the drive down, we stopped at the Caddis Fly flyshop in Eugene, which at that time was run by Bob Guard,” Spencer says. “Bob gave us some fly materials to deliver to Jim, and I take some pleasure in the fact that the first time I met him, he offered me a beer for bringing his fly stuff down to him.”
Van Loen and his wife, Sharon, are owners of the iconic Steamboat Inn, having bought it from former owners Frank and Jeanne Moore in the mid ’70s. When Spencer first began spending extended periods of time along the river in the early ’90s, he would often go down to the Inn after his dawn-patrol fishing session.
v“I would stop in about mid-morning and write in my journal for 40 or 45 minutes,” he says. “And it impressed the hell out of me that the only thing anyone ever asked me was whether my coffee was hot, and if everything was OK. Jim and I would occasionally make eye contact, but I would have no idea what he was thinking. He is a very deadpan, wry person, and it took me the longest time to realize that he is one of the best friends I have. Jim is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met; one of the kindest people I’ve ever met; and one of the people most likely to be considered an asshole by the people around him—if they don’t know him well—that I’ve ever met.”
I asked Van Loen if he had any concerns about Big Bend Pool if and when Spencer ever decided to retire. “None whatsoever,” Van Loen replied. “We know that if we don’t have someone there educating people and overseeing the pool, then the locals would go back to blowing it up or bleaching it. But there will always be somebody ready to take Lee’s place in honor of what he has done.”
It’s unlikely that whoever takes Spencer’s place will be as detailoriented and diligent about note-taking as Spencer is. But as Van Loen points out, the importance of that level of meticulousness might be overstated. “Lee Spencer has more useless knowledge about steelhead than anyone on earth,” Van Loen says. “But it might be of use to a behaviorist at some point.”
Though Spencer doesn’t “count” fish from his tarp-covered observation deck, he tries to have a general idea of numbers in the pool, which often vary between 200 and 500 steelhead at a time. The Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife maintains a fish-counting station on the North Umpqua at Winchester Dam, about 118 miles upriver from the ocean, and about an hour downriver from Steamboat Creek. Summer steelhead counts the past ten years have averaged between 3,000 and 4,000 wild fish, and about 2,300 hatchery fish. Spencer says he doesn’t pay attention to the counts over Winchester (He calls the ODFW the “Oregon Department of Finishing Wildlife”), but he believes the hatchery population in Big Bend Pool to be small—about ½ of one percent. As for the wild fish, size can vary. “Every other year, somebody will land a fish between 40-42 inches in the river,” he says. “There are some 20-plus pound fish in the pool. And twice during my time here, I’ve seen what I would consider to be a 30–pound steelhead.”
Spencer says he has no immediate plans to retire his post on Steamboat Creek. “What I do is a positive interaction with wild creatures. It’s unfortunate that we have to interact with them at all, and that we can’t just let them do whatever they do. But in this case we know that there are people interested in trying to harm them. If God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Lee, if you leave this pool, I’ll make sure nobody fucks with it, even slightly.’ Then I’d leave tomorrow and never go back. But that’s just not the way it is.”
Ultimately, Spencer may have to leave for other reasons. Ten years ago, he started noticing tremors in his hands, and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “I think I’ve worked out a give-and-take with my Parkinson’s,” he says. “I was a little spooked at first, but have since learned that, though it was fairly early-onset, it’s been slow to develop, and that is apparently a good sign. I have a hard time holding utensils, like when you’re eating soup. But I have no problem spey casting. And if I can just cast gracefully and feel like I’ve covered the water, then that’s good enough for me.”
Parkinson’s notwithstanding, Spencer’s tenure on the North Umpqua has also brought some notoriety and good fortune. The recently released conservation documentary DamNation featured a segment on Spencer. Upon watching it, lodge owner Jeff Vermillion was so moved that he offered a free week of September steelheading to Spencer at the Vermillion’s Steelhead Valhalla Lodge, on B.C.’s Sustut River. During the week, Spencer raised seven B.C. steelhead to his pointless flies.