STEELHEAD ARE AGGRESSIVE, TERRITORIAL, OR ANGRY
Is there a general reason why steelhead rise to flies? As steelhead anglers, we are interested if not fascinated by this question and will and do make a point of searching for an explanation that is acceptable to us. Without a doubt this search is fueled by the conviction that correctly identifying why a steelhead takes a fly-or a fly a steelhead-will make us better at bringing them to our own flies. Before discussing the dominant theories, however, let me note that no matter how persuasive a theory is, it is the angler that is influenced by it. No steelhead ever has been or ever will be influenced by any theory, fishing or otherwise.
Aggressiveness. Do steelhead take flies because they are fundamentally aggressive creatures? By a long ways, this explanation is the dominant one at this time and has been for quite a while now. Many times each season anglers and even non-anglers mention that steelhead are aggressive and that catching them is matter of getting their goat.
Except for those rare times when dominance displays are happening, the fish in the pool do not appear to be at all aggressive. They hold cheek by jowl for hours and days and weeks at a time with no steelhead carrying out any behavior that seems to be aggressive. Other than slowly swimming around the pod now and then the most common steelhead behaviors that I document by far are accelerating, rising, jumping, and flashing. The first three activities appear to serve the purpose primarily of getting a better look at something or someone outside the pool. Flashing appears to be for the purpose of expressing concern or nervousness to the other steelhead. Each of these four behaviors appears to be a response to a perceived threat.
Territoriality. Any behavior identified as territorial will probably be aggressive, however, many people discussing reasons for steelhead taking flies will bring up this theory separately. Of the roughly one thousand steelhead I see using the pool every season, I am reasonably sure that only perhaps ten of them have any personal interest in those gravels in proximity to the pool. There are at least six different steelhead local breeding populations that use the refuge pool and each of these populations is homing to different spawning tributaries or gravel reaches upstream from Big Bend Pool. Considering this, it is clear most of the steelhead I see have no territorial interest in the gravels around Big Bend Pool.
The steelhead who are traveling up the mainstem North Umpqua River are in the same boat . . . so to speak. In fact because summer steelhead are usually tributary spawners, it could be argued that only an infinitesimal number of the wild summer steelhead holding in the North Umpqua can be holding over their spawning gravels during the summer. For instance, nearly all of the fish holding in the Camp Water Holes are bound for basins of Steamboat Creek and Canton Creek.
Fear (Anger). During autumn a number of years back, three people in their early twenties came by the pool on their way back from hunting on the east side of the Cascade Range. While they were standing out on the edge of the viewing area point, a steelhead made a splashy rise. One of the hunters said loudly and appreciatively, "That's an angry fish!"
I am putting these two feelings together because while fear is a common response and relatively easy to identify, anger is no so. I cannot recollect ever seeing steelhead that I thought was angry. Behaviors identified now and then by visitors as anger, on the other hand, seem always to be fear.
Of the 2,606 approach behaviors documented at Big Bend Pool, I have only seen one that was carried out by what I am confident was a spooked steelhead. Daisy chaining is clearly the strongest organized fear-induced behavior carried out by Oncorhynchus mykiss in the pool and the steelhead in question was daisy chaining in the lower pool when it approached an item a couple feet away from it.
I did once became aware of repeated surging rises by more than one steelhead in the upper pool during early dusk. With the help of the light gathering capacity of my binoculars, I saw something bobbing at the surface that looked like a Douglas fir cone. As this item drifted down the pool and became more visible it resolved into a large longicorn beetle [family Ergates spiculatus]. The repeated strong splashy rises did give me the impression (for what that is worth) that the steelhead were spooked.
Curiosity. Of all the people who have written about steelhead, in my opinion the best observer and explainer was the late Enos Bradner, the great Washington State fly angler. As an example of how able he was, Bradner came up with curiosity as the reason why steelhead show an interest in flies and other things. In his 1971 book, Fish On!, he writes: "I think they are just curious. Once when we were working with Patsey Sinkey in the Washougal River on a steelhead motion picture for the Game Department, we could stand on a flat rock ledge above a pool holding a school of fish like the Wind [River]. You could throw in a small piece of bark or a cigarette butt and often a steelhead would move out of the school, come up and suck in the thrown object. It would immediately spit it out. It looked like the fish was curious to test whatever had landed in the water and not having any arms the only way it could do so was to take it in its mouth."
While I identify with this more than the other explanations-and, thus, am predisposed to see it (and please bear this is mind)-I do believe it matches what I see acted out by the steelhead in Big Bend Pool nearly all of the time. By far, the majority of the approaches I see in the pool are carried out by what I consider to be easy going steelhead and every season around 80% of these approaches are to leaves, twigs, and lichens.
Now, to return to the dominant paradigm for why steelhead take flies, AGGRESSION. I believe there are several reasons why anglers hang onto this theory, hang onto it like they were swinging from it out over a fifty-foot drop into a vat of hot grits.
As I have mentioned elsewhere in these writings, being human we are afflicted with human nature and it is my belief-again for what it's worth-that one of these afflictions is a predisposition to be blind to things that are contrary to whatever our belief structure supports or has taught us. I know that this is true for me.
Our human tendency to cleave to what we believe is also supported by a book I read recently about how the human brain works by David Eagleman. In it he discussed The Illusion-Of-Truth Effect. It has apparently been experimentally shown that you are more likely to believe that a statement is true if you have heard it before . . . whether or not it is actually true. This suggests that a dominant theory will probably remain dominant independent of its truth.
Most of the steelhead that an angler hooks every year are invisible to the angler when they take the fly. Even if a large number of anglers now fish waking flies some of the time, in their formative years these same anglers probable fished below the surface and most of the steelhead they caught in these early years were invisible to these anglers.
I believe a steelhead that has just felt the point of a hook set in its mouth will react with panic. This post-hooking [post hoc] panic, except in quite rare cases, is the first thing the angler fishing the swing feels. Because the take of a steelhead can feel like an blacksmith's anvil riding a snow board, I believe this is why a steelhead taking a fly is interpreted as aggression. The apparent aggression is reasoned backwards from the hooking to cover the original intent of the fish.
I believe that a meaningful human corollary could be a person leaping up after unintentionally sitting down on a tack. As a general rule, the frame of mind of most people who have unknowingly just sat down on a tack bears no necessary relationship to their frame of mind just prior to sitting down.
There is, of course, also no necessary relationship between the intent of the fish when it opened its mouth to take a fly and its panicked flight after it has felt the hook. An angler who-in the absence of meaningful data-believes the aggression theory, will naturally assume that the profound jerk at the end of their line and the panicked jumping and running of the fish to represent the aggression of a warrior fish. It takes little reflection to realize that the runs and jumps of a hooked steelhead represent the fear of death on the part of the fish if it is not simply an overwhelming panic.
Yes, there are steelhead that take a while to realize they have been hooked and there are, of course, also those fish that are so tired from circumventing the rapids of this river that they have no choice but to simply allow themselves to be reeled in.
Another reason why I believe anglers cleave to the aggression explanation is because of the way some of us humans think, because of our personalities. No offense intended but, when some of us hear that steelhead are aggressive or angry when dealing with flies, it possibly strikes a chord with the competitive part of some of us and, if so, we want to respond in kind. This makes the steelhead and angling for them some kind of heroic and joyous emotional endeavor. I think, rightly or wrongly, that a certain number of those anglers who continue to be convinced by the aggression theory are themselves aggressive and, because it feels right and kind of satisfying to them, project this aggression onto the steelhead.
Finally, there is the rare steelhead that has-I think-been hooked before and responds to this in an unusual way. This is the fish that takes every time you put a fly through a particular run for as much as a couple of weeks. Rightly or wrongly, I think of this as the Hornet Effect. Everyone has seen a dog snap at flies. Eventually, a dog doing so will bite down on a hornet. When this happens I used to hear my good dog, Sis, groan, and groan profoundly when it was a white-faced hornet. Some, but not all, dogs become avid snappers after buzzing insects once a hornet hurts them. These dogs will not abide a buzzer anywhere in their proximity and will pursue them. The hornet effect is when the dog or steelhead makes an effort to take the buzzing insect or the dressed hook in an attempt to destroy it before it hurts them. I remember a steelhead I encountered on a well-fished run that took my fly a total of about thirty times during several consecutive casts, about a third of the passes touching my pointless fly and all of them were somewhat splashy. Was this fish one that was under the influence of the Hornet Effect?
A similar canine behavior happens when a dog bites a porcupine. Many or most dogs consider one encounter enough, however, there are dogs that appear to be compelled to attack every porcupine they see. In areas where porcupines are common-and the dogs in question range freely-veterinarians will often suggest putting such a dog down for its own good. If this is an accurate description of why some steelhead take a fly-and really who can say-then such a take can probably be described as aggressive or perhaps fearful. This type of take cannot usefully be described as being due to curiosity.
Note: if I think there is a steelhead in a run that is under the influence of the Hornet/Porcupine Effect, I avoid that run for a few weeks, hoping the fish in question will go its way or learn better. I do not want to be complicit as the energy of such a steelhead gradually wanes and it dies before its spawning time.
 Only one steelhead involved in dominance behaviors has risen to something in the pool that I have noticed.
 "Incognito" by David Eagleman (2011).
A SUMMER STEELHEAD GAINS SIZE BETWEEN REPEAT SPAWNINGS
The wild summer steelhead in the pool have zilch to say about this subject. In the forthcoming discussion, I have used some commonly accepted percentages for the local breeding populations that make use of natal gravels in the Western Cascades in central Oregon. While I feel comfortable using these percentages, for any rigorous study, a more careful assessment would be necessary. I do want to say that the information used in the discussion of this rule emphatically does not come from the gray literature-otherwise known as crap!-passed out by the local ODFW.
Rainbow trout that are not anadromous have a maximum life expectancy here in Oregon of eight to nine years. Steelhead, being rainbow trout, can also live eight or nine years, though summer steelhead rarely live this long. This is because the vast majority of summer steelhead make their initial spawning runs well prior to this maximum age and, without doubt, the majority of Oregon summer steelhead die at the end of their first spawning run.
By autumn, there are often three to six twenty-pound-class summer steelhead present in Big Bend Pool. As near as I can figure, these big fish make up around 1% of the steelhead that hold here. On two occasions over the last fifteen years, there have been solitary giants present, wild summer steelhead that I believe to have belonged in the thirty-pound class.
Because the age at maturity is under greater genetic control for female steelhead, the largest and the smallest of the steelhead in any local breeding population are usually male fish. While there are twenty-pound female summer steelhead in the North Umpqua Basin, they are few and far between, and all of these big fish that I have so far seen in the pool have been male.
Once a visitor to the pool has watched the steelhead for a long enough time to see that all the fish are not the same size, these truly big fish attract a lot of attention and I am often asked how many times did I think that these fish have spawned.
My answer, based on my reading, is, "Only once."
The statistic I have come across in the literature is that at this latitude on the east side of the North Pacific Ocean, repeat-spawning summer and winter steelhead average about 15% for a given river. Bear in mind that easily twice the number of winter fish survive as do summer fish and this is strictly due to the amount of time they spend in freshwater. Winter steelhead spend an average of perhaps two months while summer steelhead spend an average of ten months in freshwater. So lets say that the repeat spawning average of summer steelhead is 5%.
A final piece of information to bear in mind is that female summer steelhead survive spawning at a much higher rate than do the males. This again is because of the amount of time spent in freshwater and females with their relatively gigantic eggs will ordinarily spawn with a just one male, the one which is in charge of the spawning gravels a female uses. On the other hand, most full-size male steelhead carry enough sperm to fertilize the eggs of several females. And it appears that male steelhead are bound and determined to use all of their sperm and will wait around to do so. From what I have seen, by late spring these males that are still actively on the lookout for females and travel between different areas of gravels in their natal reach, spending half a day or more at each location. They often go to the eddied areas of Big Bend Pool apparently to test the scents stored by these revolving currents.
Additionally, going from the more dense saltwater to freshwater and back once more makes big inroads on their energy reserves. The useful and truthful literature makes it clear that these transitions are not foregone conclusions and kill some smolts and adult steelhead every season.
Given the above particulars, I believe that the truly large male summer steelhead are the least likely of the steelhead and even of the male steelhead to survive spawning. The bigger the male steelhead, the more milt it carries, and, other things being equal, the longer time it will take to spend these gametes.
At the latitude of Big Bend Pool, repeat-spawning summer steelhead remain the same size they were on their first spawning run. This is true no matter how many times a summer steelhead has returned to spawn down here in the more temperate latitudes. Summer steelhead that survive the spawning process have spent potentially ten to twelve months in freshwater. To offset this longer stay in freshwater, when summer steelhead leave the ocean they are carrying 25% more fat than the winter steelhead do.
Because of their out-migration timing, surviving steelhead adults can take advantage of that season's upwelling events, such as they are. Once these depleted fish have gotten back their muscular and metabolic tone and with their gametes growing inside them and once more-a matter of perhaps two months-they re-enter their natal stream, beginning their ascent a second or third time to the particular headwater gravels that sheltered them initially as fertilized eggs.
Thus the long time they spend in freshwater without feeding-other than incidentally-coupled with the relatively short time in the salt is not conducive to summer steelhead putting on size between spawning runs. Winter steelhead, which are away from the ocean in their natal stream for only a few months, can and do put on size prior to re-entering their natal streams to spawn a second, a third, or even a fourth time.
Truly big North Umpqua summer steelhead are large because they stayed in the marine environment for more salt years before returning to spawn for the first time.
In northern British Colombia, where streams may be frozen over for almost half of a year, and where the growing season for juvenile steelhead is thus short, a tagged summer steelhead lived for, I believe, sixteen years. These summer steelhead may spend a full year in the ocean between spawning runs and are thus able to put on size.
Bob Hooten, in his book Skeena, suggests this great age might be related to the sometimes six to eight years that some B.C. summer steelhead populations spend as juveniles before they become smolts. In the North Umpqua Basin, summer steelhead appear to spend an average of two years in freshwater prior to smolting.
 The main purpose of ODFW literature is to convince the public that the agency has not been ignoring science for the last forty years or more. The point of all of the information the state game organization dispenses is to say that hatcheries are part of the solution to the very real problems with wild salmon populations in Oregon. In truth, as is now well known, hatcheries are a big part of the salmon problem and, in my opinion, the biggest part of the problem. No other part of the problems faced by Northwest Coast salmon populations undermine their wild diverse gene pools at such a basic level.
A Personal Note of Thanks
I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to all those of you who contributed to making my recent trip to Steelhead Valhalla Lodge possible. A special thanks goes to Jeff Vermillion, Alli, Deanna, and Charley Spooner, Tim Goforth and Kathy Kreiter, Jim Van Loan, Karl Alleger, and Tom Bie.