A TEMPORARY REFUGE
Natural History of a
Wild Summer Steelhead Refuge Pool
in the Western Cascades of Oregon
© Lee Spencer
The North Umpqua Foundation
All rights reserved
By late August, there of course has been a noticeable lengthening of the time between the setting of the sun and its rising again. By the end of August, bats are veering and looping over the pool forty minutes earlier than they were at the beginning of the month, an hour earlier than on the day of the solstice. All other things being equal, since virtually all terrestrial heat is related to the light of our local star, these longer nights are cooler and this in turn contributes to cooler water in the creeks. Once again, these are just potentials. Hot summer is still with the steelhead in the pool and these steelhead are still nosing into the main currents of the cooler tributary creek where they weave out of the riffle and into the head of the pool.
Independent of the fact that the water may or may not be incrementally cooling, the volume of water in the creek is continuing to drop which influences the path that the cool water of the tributary takes as it flows through the broad shallow bouldery riffle below the confluence. During the fifth season, water was both hotter for a longer period and lower and it was during the late part of August that large masses of steelhead shifted well to the right of where they had been before in the riffle. During this time, steelhead were only very rarely present in the lower portion of the pool at any time during the day . . . unless they had been spooked and were daisy chaining.
The steelhead are now and then starting to carry out what appear to be energetic chases of small two to four-inch-long fishes, chases which always appear to end lethargically with the steelhead turning away. During these chases, I have never seen a steelhead catch one of these small fishes and always the mature steelhead breaks off the pursuit several feet away from the apparent quarry. On the other hand, I once saw a pool steelhead catch what I remember as an eight-inch cutthroat trout and let it go, which seems to clearly show that the failure to catch the two to four-inch fish is probably a matter of a disinclination to do so on the part of the steelhead.
I have yet to be able to identify any of the small fish in these chases, but these fish may be young-of-the-year steelhead. It is noteworthy that the pool’s dace and shiners are by far the most common fish in the size class of those pursued by the adult steelhead.
In late August, these small fish chases are just beginning however. The frequency of these chases increases over the course of the season, peaking in October.
By this time, the steelhead are also starting to become more curious about items floating through the pool. While approaches to items on and in the flow occur infrequently relative to later in the season, they have by now begun and are more common than they were previous to this time. The accumulated notes from 1999-2007—which document 1,697 steelhead approaches—show that about nine percent (9%) of these approaches have happened in August, generally occurring in the latter half of the month. This is a small enough number that it is hard to say much more than I have, that the steelhead in the pool are starting to approach items.
A more interesting question is why begin to approach items now? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. A few circumstances are worth pointing out though. An examination of the appendices in the seasonal natural history notes devoted to the approaches documented at the pool, shows that by late August water temperatures are generally beginning to decline or at least to fluctuate more broadly.
Along with the drop in water temperature, other significant seasonal changes are beginning to affect the numbers of new items observed by the steelhead and by Sis and I in the creek. While alder leaves and fir needles have dominated the drift debris moving through the pool since our arrival, at the end of August other leaves and other conifer needles now begin to show up on the creek surface and this seasonal process increases with the approach of winter.
Another circumstance that may have bearing on why approaches by steelhead begin in earnest during the end of August is that by middle to late August, a large number of the steelhead in the pool may have completed some initial phase of their sexual maturation, either gamete maturation or the development of secondary sexual characteristics . . . or both, or neither. This maturation—if completed—may allow the fish to pay more attention to what is happening around them.
A compelling bit of information in line with this speculation is that by middle to late August, 90% of the steelhead females and males in the pool have some red on them and almost a third of the identifiable males are fully developed long jaws or well along in the process of being so. If the expression of secondary sexual characteristics is this far along, it suggests that fish may in fact be paying more attention to the world around them, at least as it relates to other steelhead and perhaps various shades of the color red. If so, it is possible they are also paying attention to what the world in general offers up at the pool.
It is also possible that the hormonal flow of the spring chinook in the creek, what few are present, is influencing the behavior of the steelhead too by forcing them to pay attention to another species altogether.
As mentioned in Early July, young-of-the-year steelhead at times accompany the crawdads in the pool. When I have been to get a good look at these small attendant fish, they have always had parr marks. This strongly suggests that it is only young-of-the-year Pacific salmon that are carrying out this behavior. When the light and currents, or presence over the sand on the near side of the pool, make visibility good enough, always the parr-marked fish have turned out to be young-of-the-year steelhead.
Dace, the commonest of the two to four-inch fish in the pool, are easily distinguished by the broad dark bar that runs along their sides parallel with their lateral line. While more numerous than juvenile steelhead are in the pool, I have never seen a dace accompanying a crawdad in its journey across the substrate. Most of the attendances heretofore have been in the left pool where the background of the pale gold sand makes these creatures easily visible. On occasion, juvenile steelhead have attended a crawdad over the left ledge shelf and in the drifted organic debris pile that forms at the head of the sand dune.
In late August of the fifth season, I documented two very interesting encounters that clarified what was probably going on with these juvenile steelhead/crawdad interactions and added another layer of mystery as well. A two-inch steelhead attended a large crawdad that was moving out into the pool over a near-bank shelf below our perch. As the crawdad moved over the edge of the shelf, it raised a large puff of clearly visible sediment and this sediment cloud was examined by the young fish which had stopped its attendance to do so. While other people and I had figured out that it was probably the ability of the larger crawdad to stir up sediments which might contain invertebrates and other food that attracted the juvenile steelhead to their company, this was the first time I was able to clearly observe the process.
Three days later, I watched another young-of-the-year steelhead with a crawdad, this time out over the sand substrate in the left pool. This small steelhead left off its attendance and appeared to chase another and smaller steelhead away to a distance of several feet from the crawdad. After about a minute, the first young-of-the-year steelhead rejoined the crawdad that had by then crawled within two feet of where the young steelhead was. Watching through binoculars, I saw the crustacean freeze into immobility as the small steelhead rejoined it. The young-of-the-year fish then swam all around the crawdad in what appeared to be a lackadaisical manner for almost a minute. Eventually, the steelhead juvenile sped quickly across in front of the crawdad. This seemed to trigger the crustacean to begin moving again.
It stayed with me that the crawdad had at first remained frozen in place after the young steelhead rejoined it. That the small steelhead left till last its pass in front of the crustacean and that it had done so quite a bit faster than it had been moving in its earlier apparent examination, made me wonder if the crawdad had frozen in place in an attempt to get the fish into its reach.
When I was a child and living in Maine, I had an aquarium that small locally netted fish were kept in, as well as periwinkles and pond weed and other creatures including a crawdad. The fish began to disappear and I got up one night with a flashlight and caught the crawdad in the process of devouring one of the fish. Even though this was expected, I was surprised that the apparently ungainly crawdad had been adept enough to capture the much more active fish. The next day I let the crawdad go into its native pond, a body of water filled with small pickerel and, at the right time of year, red efts, as the locals called the East Coast species of newt.
One visitor to the pool suggested that the juvenile steelhead might be cleaning parasites from the larger crustaceans too.
White spots of fungus are now common on otherwise undamaged steelhead that are holding in the pool. These spots, as before mentioned, are found primarily in three locations, on the manipulable flaps of skin over the nostril cavities, on the inside of the pectoral and the ventral fins, and on the skin of the back directly behind the dorsal fin at the edge of where this fin sweeps when the steelhead are sculling this fin back and forth to hold in place in the mild low-water currents of the pool. If a fish has been bitten or scraped or otherwise cut, larger areas of fungus also accumulate in those areas subjected to the damage.
The different species of Pacific salmon in the pool seem to be affected differently by this fungus, a saprolegnia species if the literature I have read is correct. If they have not spawned, spring chinook, both the full-size ones and the jacks, are sometimes resident in the pool into late September and October and—if undamaged—they have been unmarked by any fungus at all up through the time that they disappear from the pool. By this time, spring chinook have probably spent more time in freshwater than have the summer steelhead, these larger salmon generally leaving the ocean earlier than do the steelhead.
When the female spring chinook begin to work their redds into the gravels on the inside channel below the pool, their tails begin to whiten immediately. This whiteness begins distally and works forward to encompass the tail and much of the peduncle, or the wrist of the tail. I don’t know whether this whiteness is fungus. I have yet to see a spring chinook that has been holding in the pool develop a uniform white carpet of fungus that is seen so often completely encasing spring chinook carcasses that are bobbing in the shallows of the North Umpqua River. There are of course far more spring chinook in the North Umpqua River than in the main creek where a maximum number of only seven to ten fish have been observed in the course of a season.
Cutthroat trout are resident in the pool year round and, while fungus spots are visible on this species, it is a rare rather than the uniform condition. Damaged cutthroat trout do get fungal infections however. During the warm fourth and fifth seasons, fungus patches were more common on some of the larger cutthroat trout in the pool.
It is, of course, always possible that the fungus that infects the cutthroat trout or the spring chinook is of a different species from the one that infects the steelhead.
The literature on Pacific salmon makes it clear that researchers view fungal infections as pathological. What I have seen at the pool suggest otherwise. In the natural environment of the pool (versus the various unnatural and highly stressful artificial rearing and holding environments of hatchery pens), stasis develops in the interaction of fungus and steelhead. Once the fungal infection has progressed to spotting in the three locations indicated above, it doesn’t progress further in the absence of some damage.
Furthermore, there is evidence that fungus may form a beneficial coating on the lesions of damaged fish. During the third season at the pool, I saw a small steelhead with the upper half of its tail bitten and pulled? out. From the Perch, I could see the rear of this steelhead and a relatively deep pink cavity was visible where the main ray had been. This damage was fresh when I first saw it and it was eventually covered with a relatively thick white layer of fungus. Two months later, this damage had healed over with scar tissue and there was no reddening or fungus visible anywhere near the old damage. These observations minimally show that the relationship between fungus and steelhead is more complex than its uniformly bad press in the literature suggests.
Summer steelhead that enter the pool with dramatic coatings of fungus, usually associated with injuries of some kind, lose most, if not all of it. During the first season Sis and I spent at the pool, two fish entered with thick, almost undulant layers of fungus over most of the dorsal surfaces of their heads in front of the gills. The fish appeared to have been caught in an gill net somewhere in the main Umpqua River and to have gotten free somehow. These fish stood out from the pod like a raven that had dipped its head in a bucket of white paint. Within days, this coating was mostly gone leaving the skin with an ashen look where the fungus had been. Two-and-a-half weeks after first seeing these fish, even the ashy look was gone. This loss of fungus was due in part to the fact that the infection was superficial and apparently due only to the loss of the protective slime layer and, perhaps, some minor scraping of the skin.
The second season, it became clear that the fish holding in the next downcreek hole from the pool were generally much more thickly coated with fungus at the three locations. Rather than mere spots, the fungal infections in these areas covered, in some cases, as much as several square inches of skin. After these fish entered the refuge pool, their thicker fungus coatings were significantly pared down if not lost altogether. Interestingly, these more pronounced coatings of fungus make the newly entrant fish more visible by this time of year and it became clear that these new fish, at least initially, commonly held together in the pool retreat.
It is possible that the less diluted, purer and colder water of the tributary creek may be what brings about this loss of fungus. Sometimes, during the first few days a heavily fungused fish is in the pool, there seem to be signs that the heavier areas of fungus have been rubbed or scraped off. Unfortunately, I can’t point to any notes where this type of scraping activity was actually documented.
The issue of the seriousness of the infections of fungus in the artificial environment of the hatchery may be a matter of stress. I have been told by fisheries people that once fungus develops on adult wild salmon in a hatchery that are being held for spawning, often if not usually, it proceeds to encase them and to kill them. Hatchery personnel commonly treat the fungus with some type of chemical solution which is then flushed into the river or stream containing the facility. The local hatchery on the North Umpqua River flushes the adult salmon being held for spawning with a formaldehyde solution something like three times a month to keep the fungus and other maladies away.
In five of our six seasons at the pool, there have been spring chinook present by late August. Interestingly, insofar as can be told, all these August chinook have been males and each season at least one is usually a jack. Further, artificial, or domesticated, or hatchery, spring chinook are the rule.
By this time, the spring chinook are beginning to have some dominance interactions with the long-jawed and short-jawed steelhead. These actions are usually low intensity and consist for the most part of showing an interest in the lead-fish position and being willing to jockey with steelhead for this position. A dominance hierarchy of sorts had already been established among the three artificial spring chinook in the pool during the fourth season. As a rule, the first full-size spring chinook to arrive in the pool and stay put, becomes the dominant chinook for the time the spring chinook are in the pool.
Any full-size spring chinook is dominant over any jack spring chinook in the pool or elsewhere. This is clear in the literature and has also been shown to be the case in the pool, particularly with the artificial jack present during the fourth season. As previously stated, a difficulty with generalizing from the pool observations is that, as a rule, the spring chinook jacks have mostly been artificial fish and an artificial fish is an aberrant fish when it comes to behavior, aberrant in known and unknown ways.
By the end of August that the spring chinook in the pool have metamorphosed enough to determine what gender they are from the Perch. It is likely, that prior to this time, the fish themselves have worked this out.
The spring chinook in the pool remain more active in general than the steelhead. In an unusual example of this, on an afternoon in late August of the sixth season, one of the three chinook holding in the pool (probably the wild full-size male) jumped twelve times in forty-four minutes.
For those of the readers who are unclear about what the term jack means when used with relation to Pacific salmon, a jack is a precociously mature male salmon and in 99.99999999% of the cases precociously mature salmon are males. The very rare precociously mature Pacific salmon female is known as a jill. The phrase precociously mature means that these fish are sexually mature and have returned on a spawning run at a significantly younger age than do the general run of the fish. Jacks are, thus, quite variable in size, though smaller than normally maturing Pacific salmon of the relevant species and local population.
The literature states that jacks are relatively common with steelhead, cutthroat trout, coho, chinook, and sockeye, however this life history type appears to be rare in chum and nonexistent in pink salmon in their native range. Apparently, only steelhead, sea-run cutthroat trout, chinook, and the masu (Oncorhynchus masou) exhibit sexually mature nonanadromous males as part of their life history types. The masu salmon spawns solely on the west side of the North Pacific.
There is an interesting alternate steelhead life-history type called a half-pounder that runs in the Rogue, the Klamath, and the Eel River systems. These fish re-enter their natal streams after only a few months in the ocean as nine to fifteen-inch fish and spend the fall and winter feeding in freshwater. They return to the ocean in the spring. The following summer and fall these fish commonly migrate into their home river again, this time full-size and sexually mature. Unlike the life history of the jack salmon, half-pounders are not sexually mature fish and are commonly of both sexes and they feed while in fresh water. As is the rule with sexually mature or maturing Pacific salmon, jack salmon do not show much interest in food. Many people have mentioned to me that a half-pounder is a jack steelhead. I am unsure how serious these people are, but as you can see, the half-pounder life history type is completely separate from that of a precociously mature salmon.
It would be interesting to know what the incidence of the jack life history type is in those wild populations of steelhead that include half-pounders.
Reexamining the ocean entry and exit information for the half-pounders suggests that there is a relationship to marine upwelling events, or times when the ocean is especially nutrient rich and productive. During summer in the near-shore waters off the Pacific Northwest coast, the southward blowing ambient winds deflect the upper twenty meters of water to the right, or west, thus driving it off shore to be replaced by water from depths of 100 to 200 meters. This upwelling is a product of coriolus force, the inertial force resulting from the rotation of the earth which deflects a moving body to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. The strength of upwelling events has been positively correlated with the adult abundance of various Pacific salmon species, including steelhead, chinook and coho.
There is a strong variation in the upwellings that appears to be associated with the strength and duration of prevailing southerly winds of spring and summer. Apparently, most of the time, upwelling occurs in pulses with time-scales of days or weeks and it is restricted to a narrow band five to fifteen miles from shore.
Spring and summer upwellings increase the productivity of the near-shore marine environment by around a factor of four. It is known that as one moves south from Washington and Oregon to California, the marine environment becomes significantly less productive, offering less food. So, unlike further north, the marine environment off of southern Oregon and northern California, the area native to the half-pounder life history, may not be significantly more productive than the freshwater environment when upwelling is not going on. This may account for the runs of immature half-pounder steelhead returning to the freshwater rivers. Steelhead larger than fifteen to twenty inches do not return as immature fish to these rivers because Pacific Northwest rivers, generally, cannot support more than a very few fish of this size or larger that need to feed regularly and consistently to survive.
The dogwood leaves that reddened earlier in the season have been gone for a while and now some new dogwood leaves have just started to color up. Again, these new leaves seem to be primarily those directly associated with the odd-looking segmented fruit of the tree. These fruits are themselves beginning to become a shiny orange-red. It is as though the trees are clearing away those leaves that might interfere with a pileated woodpecker or a robin or chipmunk from seeing or getting at the fruit.
By this time, now and then, sections of early-ripening dogwood fruit appear on the ground for the first time. The fruit sections seem to be designed to dislodge and fall away from each other as they are plucked at by whatever creature is interested in them. Ten to twenty of the fruits cluster like slender orange-red fingers on a common base and, like books too tightly pressed together onto a shelf, pulling one often seems to dislodge another.
Red cedar branch ends are beginning to turn red-brown along the creek, undoubtedly a conifer equivalent of deciduous leaves loosing their green preparatory to falling later in the autumn. These cedar branch ends will eventually drop from the trees and some that enter the creek will be risen to by a few of the steelhead in the pool. Small slender young broad-leaved maple trees, in particular, are beginning to show some yellow leaves too. Here and there, a vine maple is starting to exhibit its dramatically colored leaves, some shade of color that ranges from yellow to deep red, though usually these leaves seem to be in the orange spectrum somewhere.
Jays and other birds are collecting barely ripe blue elderberries. Tall purple asters and Boykinia continue to bloom.
In the sixth season, during some mizzling, drizzly days in late August, small flycatchers visited the creek and, apparently perching out over the water if possible, made short fluttering flights into the air over the creek to take insects so tiny as to be glimmerings only, even when viewed with good binoculars. This was the first time I’d seen these birds and identifying them was difficult for me, despite two good bird books, binoculars, and long views of perched birds at various times from various angles. They appeared to be either western wood-peewees or willow flycatchers.
Just after I got my binoculars focused on the first of these birds where it was perched on the far bank, there was a blur of motion from upcreek and the flycatcher disappeared. Then, a few feet to the left, a sodden juvenile Cooper’s hawk hopped into view facing the Perch. The small brown bird dangled, an amorphous bundle, from the hawk’s left foot.
I realized then that the kingfishers I had been hearing just upcreek from the pool might have been calling because of this young hawk.
Juvenile and adult kingfishers continue to have noisy altercations with each other, swooping close, diving past, and yelling their chattering calls.
Kingfishers are also now making low-angled dives that barely penetrate the surface of the water. At times, kingfishers carry out six to eight in a row, one after another, and often quite a distance apart. It’s as though they needed to build up some speed to penetrate the surface at these extremely shallow angles. I have never seen them come up with any prey after entertaining themselves in this manner and can’t imagine, really, how they could unless by extreme accident. This type of dive is mentioned in the literature, but is correlated only with shallow water, whereas I have seen kingfisher practice this behavior over water that is shallow and water that is many feet deep. I have also watched a kingfisher dive at a steep angle from a high perch into water less than a couple feet deep.
I was puzzled by these low-angled dives for a while, but finally watched as a young female kingfisher made a series of them and flapped and splashed on the surface before and during some and then engaged in some serious bouts of grooming. Shortly, I began to notice that grooming was often associated with these dives, grooming that was sometimes protracted. Once this connection was made, it became reasonably clear that the shallow dives were primarily for the purpose of bathing. Given the time of year, perhaps they serve the purpose of cooling the bird too, however, I imagine their normal dives would do this just as effectively.
In the middle part of the afternoon on a hot (93° in the shade) sunny day, I watched a juvenile kingfisher perched in the sun on the far bank. This bird was panting with its bill parted and the rose-crimson color of the inside of its throat was visible. Shortly, this kingfisher flew to a rock in the upper part of the riffle and fanned its wings well down either side of the stone and also cocked its back feathers markedly out and away from its body. It stayed this way for a while with its back to the sun.
Then the bird sat composed and together for a bit and then fanned its wings down and cocked its back feathers out from its body again and again. Finally, the bird composed itself once more and turned steadily in a complete clockwise circle on top of the rock.
The young kingfisher finally flew to a rock in the shade where it landed with a couple of short churring calls. Two minutes later, this bird dove and came up with a one-inch-long silvery fish which it beat, clamped, and swallowed over a few seconds.
It was also during late August that I watched a kingfisher do an amazing thing. A juvenile bird, perhaps the same one who a few days later would fan itself across the rock in the upper riffle, flew down the pool low to the water and landed on the ledge below the Perch. It had a short, flattened, and pale brown piece of punky wood in its bill which it grasped in various ways and batted on the rock occasionally.
After about a minute, the bird abandoned the wood and flew to a large boulder at the point of the central bar downcreek. Later, I collected the wood and drew it in that season’s notebook. The wood promptly sank when I put it in a dish of water, suggesting that this kingfisher dove for the wood, collecting it from the substrate. Was the wood mistaken for prey by this young bird? The wood, while not really the shape, was the size and color of a large specimen of the local brown species of crawdad.
Dippers that that Sis and I last heard consistently singing in the late spring, are once more heard warbling their songs, while continuing their much more common guttural chips and chatterings. Starting around now, the gray heads of the juvenile dippers begin to take on the brown hue of the adults. Their heads will not be distinctively brown until October. These young birds will continue to show light-colored breast feathers into at least the early winter.
The merganser pups that had started out as small puffy white and brown spotted bundles a few inches long, are now grown and fully fledged. I am haphazardly able to identify them as juveniles because they lack the cockade of the adult bird. Commonly now, the groups of mergansers all seem to be juveniles.
Early in the evening of the last day of the month during 2002, a blue heron came gliding up the creek low to the water. As it came up over the lower pool, the steelhead pod erupted into a monstrous surface-tearing commotion that traveled fifty feet up the pool and was like there was a dragon twisting just beneath the surface. This caused the heron to drop its legs and flap up and in over the far bank rocks, legs swinging like a pendulum, and out over the riffle, to sweep in to a landing in the shallows off the cobble beach above the viewing area.
From there the heron leaned forward, aiming at the area of the commotion, and began to squall loud grating calls a second or so apart, each call swelling its throat visibly. The sounds a blue heron makes are as unmusical as it seems possible for a sound to be and this one sounded like dragging the edge of a coal shovel over asphalt. Gradually the squallings declined and softened in tone. This was an adult bird and perhaps it was new to the creek and new to the pool, unaware of the fish holding in the placid-seeming shadowed place. On the other hand, the violence of the surface eruption had surprised me too and I was intimately aware that there were steelhead in the pool.
After several minutes, the squalling stopped and, as the heron began to move slowly upcreek, a steelhead jumped high from the lower riffle facing the bird. This halted the heron and it watched the area until the rattling chatter of a kingfisher upcreek caused it to cock its head in another direction. A few minutes later it began to step upcreek once more through the shallows and finally it flew up over the riffle to the edge of the short rapid where the main creek drops into its confluence with the cold tributary stream.
Late in the month, the large mayflies often appear in the air over the creek for the first time. Mayflies are relatively common at the pool from the time Sis and I arrive, but these ones are big with bodies almost three-quarters of an inch long or longer. The ones I’ve had a close look at are a rich chestnut-brown color though these large mayflies may be other colors too, that is, there may be more than one species of large mayfly at the pool at this time.
This is the time of year that I see the gigantic crane flies in their odd bumbling flights around the pool. These creatures are two-and-a-half to three inches in area, however whether this measure is wing tip to wing tip or wing tips to bottom reach of dangling legs or length of body alone I couldn’t say. They seem huge, though spindly, and are a ginger-brown color.
On my walks with Sis throughout the area, late August is when I begin to see the nests of hornets, those that are underground, dug up by bears. For me, this is always a sign of the passing of summer.
Once, during the fourth season, well up a side road from the pool at about ten in the morning, Sis and I met a small adult black bear that had dropped down onto the road about fifty yards in front of us. I clapped my hands and stamped which produced no reaction in the bear that I could see. Then I shouted and the bear spooked and ran across the road and dropped over the steep edge there. The sounds of breaking vegetation seemed to go quickly away.
Sis and I continued our walk and less than a hundred yards further up the road, I heard a loud scraping sound that brought me to a stop. I turned around and saw a cub-size bear about forty feet up the side of an old-growth fir located a short distance up the slope from the road. It took a few seconds for the implications of the two bears to register. The first bear was the mother of this youngster and Sis and I had just walked between a mother and her cub.
We walked quickly back down the road again and, about where I had first stopped, I paused and made some notes in my pocket notebook. While I was doing this there were several more loud scraping sounds from the treed bear. Then there was a slightly hoarse, hollow and low-toned hooting from the direction of the cub. Sis and I went on our way down the hill and saw no more of the bears.
The woolly bear caterpillar (Isia isabella) becomes much more common humping itself about on those years where there are sufficient of them, and some years there appear to be millions. The wooly bear is the large hairy moth caterpillar that is apparently common to North America south of the arctic circle. It is the one that has a black front segment, an orange middle segment, and a black rear segment. On some years these creatures are everywhere and Sis and I might count eighteen or twenty moving across the road with their humping rolling gait during a walk of a quarter mile.
There is a bit of folklore concerning these creatures that has been going around undoubtedly for much longer than I have been aware of it. It is said that by the relative length of one of the segments a person is able to forecast the length and severity of the coming winter. No one has ever been able to tell me which segment and whether what length meant what in terms of the coming cold season.
During the last three seasons, 2002 through 2004, seasons with quite different winters, the forward black section was very much the longest segment on the wooly bears I saw, that is, when there was any differentiation at all and there usually was. The middle orange segment was generally the second longest and the rear black segment was the shortest. My field guide suggests that this winter forecast is in fact a forecast of how close to fully grown and ready for metamorphosis an individual caterpillar is. These are potentially large creatures in excess of two-inches long, though I have seen them less than half-an-inch long as well.
Another interesting thing about these caterpillars is that, even following a season where they have appeared in their millions, I have yet to see the large yellow tent-winged moth they change into.
Sis and I see worn and tattered admirals now with, occasionally, much newer looking California sisters. Wood nymphs are about too, as are whites and sulphurs and tortoise shells, but the tiger swallowtails are gone from the air about the pool. Once, on a late August morning, I saw a wood nymph perched on otter scat on the far bank rocks.
Mourning cloak-like locusts and yellow-winged grasshoppers are flying about now, sometimes making their ratchetings.
For some reason, young-of-the-year racers and garter snakes commonly make an appearance toward the end of August. During the fifth season, two slender young-of-the-year yellow-bellied racers were seen on the flat above the pool. They were six to eight-inches long and complexly marked with large brown reticulations on a pale background. In this they look distinctively different from their adult form with its uniform gray green back and pale yellow belly. Unfortunately, one of these young snakes had been stepped on and was dead. Just like the parr marks and spotting of the young of all the Pacific salmon other than the pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), this brown patterning of the young racers probably also serves as camouflage, something that is not necessary—adaptively speaking anyway—to the very swift unmarked adult racers. During the third season, I saw a young-of-the-year racer with brown markings at the pool in early September.
During the sixth season, Sis and I came upon a reticulated young-of-the-year racer sunning itself on the road. It was laying with its body in line with the rays of the sun just risen above the south-east ridge and its body had been formed into seven or eight tight identical curves. This arrangement of its body seemed to maximize the exposure of both sides of the young snake’s body and its back to the sun.
After documenting this, I shooed the snake away from the road.
Chipmunks are by now harvesting the fruits of the dogwood, having finally abandoned the vine maple seeds for the most part.
During late August of the second season, Sis and I were visited by three local men. I believe they were retired. One had worked his professional life as a forester for one of the state or federal agencies. Perhaps inspired by the sight of all the steelhead in the pool, they told me that there were billions of acres of uncut old growth forest left. I stepped on a quick impulse to ask them if they could point out on a map where some of the larger of these areas were to be found.
Having made this amazing assertion which, as near as I could tell, they believed, they went on to add that there were differences of opinion on that. One of these men said that he thought that logging should go back to the old technologies which would certainly bring jobs back and be better for the trees, though it would be hell on profit margins. Another, again veering into surrealism like an underage driver unable to see well over the dashboard, asked if I knew that virtually all these old growth trees were diseased? “For crying out loud, look at the ones on the ground. They’re all rotted at the heart.”
Another time during late August, I watched four grown but juvenile mergansers swim down from the riffle into the pool, actively diving. The water was crystalline and I watched as one of the ducks paddled beneath the surface to the edge of the shelves below the Perch. A steelhead was swimming down through the left pool and got within a foot or so of the bird. This apparently spooked the bird and it shot up, sounding a loud “peep” as it surfaced, and it created a furrow speeding away up into the riffle and out of sight around the corner heading for the confluence. The other three mergansers chased along after the spooked one traveling almost as fast as the first bird.
Observations during later seasons showed Sis and I that steelhead, when they had not been unduly spooked, will swim very close to a variety of large creatures in the pool, including otters that are diving for crawdads. Steelhead appear to know the difference between an otter interested in crawdads and interested in themselves. In the latter case, a visit by an otter seems to cause the steelhead to actively mill around the pool.
Early one evening during the second season, an interesting and interested older gentleman by the name of Connie McNare, seventy-eight, from Woodburn, Oregon, visited the pool. Connie was still spry and told me he had been casting flies for steelhead on the North Umpqua for years and that he caught fish.
We talked technique and when I mentioned I used Muddlers, riffle-hitched, and waking on the surface, he asked how a person fished a dry fly downstream. I told Connie that I only had an hour or so, but that if he didn’t mind driving Sis and me to and from the river, I would show him. He smiled, saying he could do that.
We went to the Sawtooth Run, a broad, relatively smooth, and very deep tailout located a few hundred yards downstream from the Mott Bridge. I cast to the far bank and swung the Muddler across on the surface on a tight, slightly bellied line. Connie took it all in while nodding his head.
About the time I was making my last few casts and swinging a tongue of current on the inside of the run, a person I knew came down the bank and started talking about his fishing. I tried to include Connie in the conversation, but he seemed content to listen. This new person eventually and rhetorically brought up the old saw about whether steelhead or any fish feels pain when hooked. This person knew I fished with my flies tied on hooks without points and this may have inspired the statement.
I ignored the insoluble question—in itself pointless, since how would you know—and said that I was more concerned with whether a fish felt fear than whether it felt pain. I asked this person, who was considering what I had said in silence, whether it would be fair to consider the fight of the steelhead when hooked, with its runs and jumps, a sign that the fish in question was panicked and in a strong state of fear?
The next year, Connie, now seventy-nine, visited again and told me that that day, August 21, 2001, he had landed his first steelhead on dry fly while fishing a run above Horseshoe Bend.
Years after I had begun casting flies on the North Umpqua, I eventually became competent at hooking and landing steelhead while angling for them with a fly. This was an enjoyable, but unfortunately and perhaps necessarily, an obsessive process. With this increasing success at bringing steelhead to my flies, I gradually began to realize that not only were the fish I hooked in fear of their lives, but they were sometimes, not often but sometimes, so exhausted as to be lethally worn out when I released them. In 1998, a year I fished the river for more than a hundred days, three of the seventy-seven steelhead I hooked did die, if turning belly up in water I couldn’t get to or bleeding from the gills means anything. During that season, I had also brought in a steelhead eyeball on the end of my hook.
That winter I did some soul searching and realized that I had gotten to the point with my angling where I could no longer justify to myself the affect I was having on the summer steelhead I hooked. At the suggestion of my teenage niece, Laura—and experimentally—I began to cut the points off the hooks I tied my Muddlers on. I also used a fine-grit ceramic stone to smooth off the resulting jaggedness of the metal. This final honing was so that the end of the hook would slide over and not tear the skin of a steelhead’s mouth. I retained a bit of the hook bend so that I could continue to use a rod guide as a keeper and not have to real up all my line.
It took several months of the 1999 season to get over wanting to see the fish close up that had just risen to my fly out in the river. I persevered however and did get used to it and now don’t miss not bringing steelhead in to release. Really. This is true. The one thing that I was sad about was that Sis no longer got to see the steelhead in shallow water on the end of my line, something she dearly loved judging from the way she danced on the mossy rocks or in the sedges trying to get a good look.
Well, during late August of our fifth season at the pool, fishing with two friends, I brought a steelhead to a waking pointless Muddler and it stayed on. I had to release the fish . . . actually, the fly dropped out of its open mouth as I tailed it in the shallows. This was confusing, but especially satisfying in that I made a point of watching Sis dancing with enjoyment once more. After releasing this large steelhead, actually several hours after doing so, I found that I preferred having these singular creatures only momentarily on my line.
Amazingly, this was the first of five steelhead I landed in a row. Since that time, I accidentally land two or three steelhead a season. Bearing this in mind, I regularly perplex myself with the question: What was I doing differently five years after I started to fish pointless?