Stories

Skeena Steelhead - Thoughts, Data, And The Case For Future Optimism

Brian Niska | Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness and Lodge February 01, 2022

If you are a steelhead fly angler you are, by definition, an optimist. At the best of times steelhead fishing is hard work. Especially if you want to catch wild fish on a swung fly.

Of course, steelheading is not for everyone. Some folks are more numbers oriented and are better suited to the pursuit of abundant quarry like bass, bluegills and bonefish. A true steelheader is in it for the full experience, the anticipation and appreciation of being absorbed into the river environment.

Given the poor returns of 2021, one could be forgiven for believing that steelhead are in constant threat of extirpation from Alaska to California. This is especially the case at the southern end of their range where they have endured massive hydroelectric projects, poor logging practices, fish farms, hatchery intervention, mining, urban sprawl, agricultural dewatering and other effects of massive human population growth and the associated demand for resources. Despite all of this, there are some truly wild places south of the 49th parallel where habitat remains intact and clean water flows, enabling these fish to thrive. Wherever they are found, wild steelhead are special and worthy of both pursuit and protection. However, it is entirely understandable why many anglers look north to British Columbia’s Skeena country to experience steelhead fishing in its purest form. No dams, no fish farms, hatcheries or recreational harvest, these fish are as God presented them in the landscape they were born of.

Let me be clear, there is not an abundance of steelhead in the Skeena. This is not a place to catch numbers of fish but a rather an opportunity to connect with a quality of fish and experience rarely found in the modern world. The Skeena summer-run fishery has been regulated catch and release since the late ‘80’s. In the grand scheme of things, it is a well-managed fishery that features a progressive suite of conservation-based tackle restrictions and an angling public that have embraced fish handling best practices. A recent study completed on these waters determined a catch and release survival rate in excess of 95%.

It should also be emphasized that Skeena is not without threats. In recent times there have been proposals to drill for coal bed methane in her headwaters, install fish farms near her river mouth, punch a crude oil pipeline through her watershed and most recently a proposal for a liquid natural gas pipeline with a terminus in her estuary. Each of these threats has been rallied against and temporarily defeated by the greater community with strong representation from Indigenous people and the very anglers that have made an annual commitment to visit these waters and connect with her fish.

I want to take a moment and let the reader know that I am a flyfishing guide on the lower Skeena, part of a sustainable industry that converts the steelheading experience into tourism industry jobs and cash. To policy makers and politicians this tangible financial contribution is a compelling argument to protect this watershed from the potential damage of heavy industry and resource extraction. There are many professional guides throughout Skeena country. Collectively we have logged countless hours of river time and carefully released lot of fish over the years. Most importantly we have given our guests a reason to care. Our clients leave rich from these experiences and return to the desks and workstations of their regular lives with a greater appreciation for the natural world.

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Winter Run Skeena Steelhead

Winter run steelhead in the lower Skeena start to show up anytime in the winter when water conditions are right. Fresh fish will continue to enter the system right up to the onset of freshet, usually towards late April or early May. Like most Skeena lodges, our guiding activity takes place in March and April. The good news is Skeena winter run steelhead populations appear to be healthy. No enumeration measures are in place so if you want to know how the run is you need to talk to the anglers fishing it. If you are wondering about fishing this year, I can tell you that recent mild weather has brought in some fish like this one caught last week. Guides and local anglers are excited to see what March and April bring for fish this year

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Summer Run Skeena Steelhead

Skeena summer-run Steelhead will normally enter the lower Skeena in good numbers sometime around the beginning of July and we will start fishing them by the middle of the month. In a typical year this run will peak in mid-August with decent numbers of fish coming in September and most of October. Skeena summer-run abundance can fluctuate wildly from one year to the next however the overall trend line suggests a healthy population. In recent years we have had a winning streak of strong returns. In fact, the following seven years (2008, 2009, 2010,2011,2012,2016, 2018) are all included in the 15 best Skeena returns recorded since record keeping began in the 1950’s.

I realize that the information I’m providing does not fit within the species-wide crisis narrative prevalent in both the media and outreach from certain ENGOs. So how could I be so confident that Skeena steelhead aren’t in crisis?

Let’s start by looking at the numbers.

Skeena Summer Steelhead Run Size

Largest Escapement Years Lowest Escapement Years
1998 (largest)
2010
2000
2002
1984
1999
2008
2016
2018
2012
1988
2009
1986
1966
2011
1972
2020
1973
1993
1961
1997
1975
1992
1974
1979
1959
1983
1991
1957
2021 (lowest)

Once again, it’s worth noting that 7 of the 15 best years in 7 decades of recording appear in the last 15 years.

You will also note that escapement estimates for 2020 and 2021 feature among the worst 15 years. However, you will need to go back 25 years to 1997 for the next most recent year on this list. As alarming as two bad years in a row may seem it is important to remember that his type of low-end cycle is far from unprecedented. As an example, 1991, 1992 and 1993 and 1997. Also look at 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1979 and 1983.

Another thing that should jump out here is the variance from one year to the next. While the ocean survival rate is the primary contributor to abundance, it is interesting to see some incredible improvement with fish leaving the marine environment just 12 months apart. There are quite a few examples of this within the seven decades of data. However, 1997 (8th lowest) to 1998 (highest recorded) is by far the most stunning single season improvement. Another great one would be 1983 (4th lowest) to 1984 (6th biggest). Both improvements came on the heels of the low-end cycles noted above.

There is no doubt that the volume of commercial fishing each year may have also played a role in steelhead run size. The key point here is that the run has bounced back from low numbers to produce some of the largest returns on record.

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So, What Happenend in 2021?

The first thing to understand is how we determine the run-size estimates on the Skeena. The highest profile tool for estimating Skeena fish abundance is a test net fishery taking place at Tyee (tidewater). The Tyee test fishery is purpose built to enumerate sockeye salmon. It uses a 1200’ long gill net which soaks for a couple hours per tide on the north side of the Skeena where the river is 2km wide. The number of Skeena sockeye caught in this net will be multiplied into a run size estimate that is used to trigger salmon fishing opportunities. Aside from catching salmon, the mesh size used at Tyee is effective at catching whatever steelhead might be migrating past at the same time. Similar to the salmon, a formula is employed with a multiplier to estimate steelhead abundance based on the number of steelhead caught in the net. In a typical year the number of dead steelhead recorded at Tyee will be greater than the catch & release mortality associated with the recreational fishery on the lower Skeena. More than 70 Steelhead were killed at Tyee this year. If you are like me, you probably find it ironic that we still kill these fish in a gill net to get some idea of their abundance. I should mention that the Tyee net had a 3-week period this summer where no fish were caught, meaning the needle did not move on the overall run size estimate, while at the same anglers were catching new fish entering the system. Also, the Tyee program wraps up in September so any fish entering the Skeena after this point are not captured in the estimate. With the Tyee suggesting a return similar to the previous low (1957) a decision was made to end the season on October 12. This measure was designed to give these fish sanctuary at a time of year when they are most susceptible to recapture. Other measures put in place included a bait ban and a request for anglers to limit their catch to 1 fish per day.

There are a variety of life histories amongst Skeena steelhead. It has been found that in most Skeena tributaries steelhead spending four years in freshwater before outmigration to the marine environment for two years (4:2) is the most prevalent. Data from Tyee gives us a glimpse of the variety possible, with some fish migrating earlier and some choosing to stay as long as 5 years in the marine environment as well as longer and shorter stays in natal streams. A small number of fish will manage to make this journey a second time further diversifying the age class of fish spawning in any given year.

This year we caught a large number of really small steelhead (3.1 and 4.1) vs the 4.2 fish ‘normal sized’ steelhead that traditionally make up the bulk of the catch. Along with the small (20”-24”) fish were some truly exceptional large specimens. Data captured at Tyee suggests these larger fish are most likely 4.3 fish but could also have a history so varied to include up to 5 years in the ocean. The incredible variety of Skeena steelhead life history contributes to their resiliency. So, while there is concern that normal sized 4.2 fish were in short supply this year, the good news is that other age class fish seemed to be present in normal numbers.

I want to take a moment and discuss the abundance range of Skeena summer steelhead from one year to the next. There are a variety of factors (both known and unknown) that contribute to this including but not limited to, prevailing life history, net pressure, predator abundance and conditions in the marine environment especially as influenced by Pacific Decadal Oscillation(PDO). Some good news, after an extended period in the warm water phase of PDO and a well publicised supercharged warm water blob in 2019, the cooling cycle has begun. History shows us that this a key factor to improve fitness and abundance of our Skeena fish.

Regardless of this adversity, Skeena steelhead have demonstrated a tremendous perseverance. Rainbow trout (steelhead) are incredibly fecund, meaning a large amount of returning adults is not required to properly seed the available habitat. When there are years of low returning adults, their progeny fair exceptionally well as they have access to the best habitat and food supply. Unlike many US rivers, the Skeena has no dams and there is plentiful spawning and rearing habitat available for steelhead to utilize. The largest issue our fish currently face is interception in net fisheries. Indigenous fisheries and associated gill net activity are the largest known source of run size reduction for Skeena steelhead once they leave the Pacific Ocean. In 2021, the reported harvest in these fisheries was 1914 fish.

Commercial fishing is viewed as having a significant impact on our overall return numbers. Unlike FSC fisheries, the extent of this exploitation is not known. This is especially the case in Southeast Alaska as identified in the recent report referenced here.

https://skeenawild.org/new-report-alaska-harvesting-millions-canadian-salmon/

So, if you want to do something to help Skeena steelhead as an American citizen, here is a way you can help us. I would ask you write to elected officials like Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan as well as congressman Don Young. Please demand that commercial fisheries in Southeast Alaska report their steelhead by-catch and that this information be shared with our Canadian managers.

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What to Expect This Year?

I am very optimistic for improved steelhead returns in the next few years. As I mentioned previously the shift in PDO is an encouraging factor. After 14 years in the warm phase of PDO we are now into a cooling trend. Combine this with the La Nina winter we are currently experiencing, and you have the best possible scenario for steelhead marine survival. Currently ocean conditions are ranked as the best in over a decade. This improvement will benefit Steelhead throughout their range including offspring from the large Skeena returns in 2016 and 2018. Fishing through the low end of the cycle has enhanced appreciation of our wild steelhead resource and strengthened our commitment to conservation through harm reduction and angler education. This appreciation for the angling experience as a whole, rather than a desire to catch a large number of fish, maximizes the benefits of having an engaged angling public as effective advocates for these wild fish and the healthy environment they depend on.

Brian Niska is a speycasting instructor and guide. He runs Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge in Northern British Columbia /products/skeena-spey-lodge. Brian is a board member of the BC Fishing Tourism Association. He can be reached at brian.niska@skeenaspey.com .

Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness and Lodge

Fish with a team of professionals that focus almost exclusively on the main Skeena