Fishermen call it “Christmas in July” when gleaming silver-sided Coho salmon come aboard all wrapped up in a fishing net. In fact, it’s been a banner summer for ocean salmon fishermen who are enjoying one of the best seasons in years. “These are the good old days,” noted longtime salmon fishing guide John Krauthoefer. “It was the bread and butter fish for salmon fishermen in the 1960s and 70s, then we lost it for several years – but now it’s back and red hot.”

But this unique brand of a Christmas in July is more than catching big, fat fish – for a group of volunteers and one Clatsop County landowner, it’s also about giving back to nature so salmon will have a future.

Recently, along the Necanicum River near Seaside, landowner Byren Thompson hosted a salmon habitat party that had been months in the making thanks to a group of volunteers from Trout Unlimited, a not-for-profit sport fishing conservation group.

It’s a party that proved that there are many opportunities for people to “walk the talk” about caring for their home state. This group was moved into action to make a difference for fish by giving their time, money and even their property to help nature. For the past three summers, Thompson has provided a Coho Sanctuary along his 10-acre stretch of riverside property in Clatsop County.

Trout Unlimited collected more than 800 used Christmas trees last January. The trees are corralled into a bend of the river to provide critical baby fish habitat; shade that cools the water, cover from predators and plenty of bugs for food. Local ecologist and environmental consultant Doug Ray said, “When we throw this wood in the river and collect them in this short, forty yard stretch, fish respond to it within minutes. It’s like they are hard wired, genetically to find and use the cover.”

Thompson’s Coho Sanctuary was created and built by Bryen’s dad, Herb Thompson, who realized that he could help more baby salmon survive their journey to the sea by creating more fish habitat on his property. “He had a burning desire to help fish and there would be no stopping him,” said Byren’s mother, Susan Thompson. “Herb would never take no for an answer and he really envisioned that our property would become an educational center, with tours and classes to teach people how they can do this on their own lands. Well, it is actually becoming what he envisioned.”

Herb Thompson died in 2012, but Byren said his dad really believed it was important to give back to nature. “We had always been outdoorsmen and love to catch fish and Dad thought it was important to help raise more fish by improving the habitat they need. Now, I just enjoy sharing ideas and encouraging others to help too. I actually enjoy seeing more and more fish come back as adult salmon from the efforts we take now.”

More and more volunteers are giving more time to the Necanicum Coho Sanctuary, too. Last January, scores of members from the Tualatin Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited gathered in Lake Oswego to collect hundreds of trees from folks who also gave 10 dollars a tree to help pay transportation from the city to the country.

“These trees are instant habitat for baby salmon,” said Trout Unlimited member Jeff Price. “Even one tree makes a difference because we’ve seen dozens of fish come to an area right after we placed a tree in the water. It’s amazing see that kind of biology in action.”

Trout Unlimited’s Christmas for Coho project made national news when Field and Stream magazine awarded the Tualatin chapter their “Hero for a Day” award that recognized volunteerism to help salmon. They even produced a video about the unique project.

“We spotlight people who do volunteer efforts to help fish and wildlife habitats,” said Field and Stream editor Bob Marshall. “If we give people attention for the good they are doing, it will inspire others to do the same thing.”

Back along the Necanicum River, the Coho Sanctuary soon filled with 800 Christmas trees and Thompson noted that by September, thousands of baby salmon will gather under the shelter of the trees. “When the first big rain hits in September,” said Thompson, “I will come down here and cut the line that holds all of these trees in place and they will all flush out to the estuary. Next summer, we’ll start the project all over again. It really works well.”

Ecologist Doug Ray added, “ This project is an incredible testament to Herb Thompson’s vision to find a way – on his own land and with his own time and energy –  to give back to nature and then provide opportunities to others, like us, to help too.”

“We are just average, everyday people,” noted Susan Thompson, “Now we have other organizations getting on board too. All these volunteers who help us…we feel truly blessed to have them so the Coho Sanctuary dream continues.”

It’s a dream measured by a spirit of giving – a Christmas for Coho that lasts all year long.

About the Author: Grant McOmie

Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.

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