Steelhead Samaritan

Lee Spencer camps out more days a year than he spends indoors, but his life isn't all cozy campfires and stargazing. As the officially designated river marshal, the one and only such hired gun in the entire Pacific Northwest, Spencer spends his days (and nights) from mid-May until late November guarding hordes of steelhead holed up in the depths of Big Bend Pool on Oregon's Steamboat Creek.

For decades the cool "refuge" water of the pool came to be regarded among outlaws in southern Oregon as a veritable poacher's paradise. All the usual poaching methods came into play: trotlines, snag-hooks, gill nets, spears, bow and arrows, poison, even dynamite. The poaching of the Big Bend Pool was particularly disturbing since Steamboat Creek and its grid of secondary tributaries comprise the most vital spawning and nursery habitat on the North Umpqua River, a system where in recent years wild steelhead populations have plummeted.

An advocacy group called the North Umpqua Foundation scraped together funds to recruit a full-time on-site overseer. Spencer proved to be the perfect fit, although the mild-mannered angler and archeologist downplays the concept. "I'm not a cop or a cop wannabe," says Spencer. "The first few years on the job I had to deal with the paranoia--'Oh my God, I've got to deter the bad guys.'"

If Spencer detects any suspicious activity, he's authorized to contact an on-duty Oregon State Trooper using a two-way radio supplied by the U.S. Forest Service. "My attitude has gone through some changes," says Spencer. "As it stands right now, I think that simply having a warm body there is deterrent enough." --Don Roberts