Wild Steelhead Life Cycle
What makes the rivers of the Skeena like the Bulkley and Morice Rivers so unique in part is their rich macroinvertebrate life, driven by the nutrient-rich geology and intact ecosystem of the larger watershed. Most steelhead spend 1-2 years in freshwater maturing into smolts. However, in the Skeena, juvenile steelhead spend 2-3 years living in the rivers feeding on their relatively abundant macroinvertebrate insect life, then make a quick several week journey downstream into the Skeena estuary and the Pacific Ocean. They spend 2–3 years in the ocean, and then return to spawn, often multiple years. The abundance of insect life in these rivers imprints a tendency for these steelhead to take dry flies. In combination with fact that steelhead do indeed feed during their lengthy stay in freshwater make the Bulkley River, in particular, one of the world’s greatest rivers to hook a large steelhead on a dry fly.
Steelhead of the Skeena watershed can live up to eight years, and unlike their cousins the Pacific Salmon, they do not die after spawning. Fish can return year after year to spawn. Males or bucks are typically larger than females or hens. An average-sized steelhead caught in the Bulkley River is 8 -14 pounds. The Babine, known for its consistently large but relatively sparse numbers, may average between 16-22 pounds. Every year, anglers using a combination of skill, luck and strong tippet land steelhead approaching or exceeding 30 pounds. The powerful monsters that exceed 40 pounds have been landed commercially, but never successfully on recreational tackle.
Genetics research along the coast of British Columbia has verified that within a large watershed like the Skeena, the different seasonal runs of steelhead are genetically distinct stocks, or races. The early run of steelhead generally spans July to early September, the mid-season run spans early September through October, and the late season run spans November through December. Research on the Skeena found that steelhead migrate an average of 12 to 16 kilometers a day. Later run fish tend to be larger and heavier most likely because of the increased time period they have to forage in the nutrient-rich, ocean environment.
Once in freshwater, these steelhead stay in freshwater until March and April when they spawn in reeds or nests in the clean gravel of the Skeena’s many tributaries. These eggs then hatch in less than two months, and this incredible cycle begins anew.