The Skeena River
The Skeena is the second-longest river, after the Fraser, to flow entirely within the boundaries of British Columbia and supports salmon and steelhead runs that are arguably the finest in the world.
The name Skeena is derived from the Gitxsan First Nation’s word ’Ksan, meaning “river of the mists,” and has been the lifeblood of the Tsimshian and Gitxsan people for centuries, providing a staple food source for its residents long before the coming of Europeans.
The Skeena begins as a trickle in a mountain valley at the southern end of the Spatsizi Plateau and gets larger and larger as it picks up minor and major tributaries on its course of about 600 kilometres before emptying into Chatham Sound, Telegraph Passage, Ogden Channel and, finally, the Pacific Ocean east of Dixon Entrance.
Its major tributary rivers are the Sustut, Babine, Kispiox, Bulkley, Kitwanga, Zymoetz (Copper) and Kitsumkalum, which, along with its hundreds of minor rivers, creeks and streams, provide abundant spawning and nursery habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon and the prize of all sport fish, steelhead trout.
The salmon-fishing season lasts almost year-round in the Skeena; all species can be caught at some time from April through November. Steelhead, which run into the river with the salmon during summer, fall and winter months, reside in their natal streams through the winter, spawn in spring before freshet, and return to the ocean if they survive the ritual. The first salmon to arrive in early spring are giant chinooks, which enter the Kitsumkalum River in April and May and continue to run up the Skeena through June, July and August. Sockeye, chum and pink salmon also run through the system during the summer months; cohos are prime targets later in the summer and into the fall months, petering out in early December.
The Skeena system’s fishing spots are accessible by car along Highway 16 from Terrace to Prince Rupert, until the river takes a turn southwest. If you bring your jet boat, there are put-ins that offer access to many less-crowded parts of the river and many times you can catch a fresh run of fish before they reach the mob of fishers at Terrace.
Fly-fishing water is different than gear water. If you are unfamiliar or confused about where to begin fly-fishing, watch and follow people that are on the river with their fly rods. At most times salmon and steelhead are running close to the bank in shallow water, so you are looking for soft-flowing water knee- to waist-deep with a long, gradual beach that is inside the main river current, a place where fish can exert less effort to navigate upriver against the Skeena’s heavy flow.
What flies do I use? For all salmonid species, it’s pretty hard to beat combinations of pink and purple or black and blue. It’s true that many times you will be “flossing” salmon (catching them on the outside of their mouths), but these species, especially steelhead, will also mouth the flies on most occasions. The key to catching them is to get your fly to the river bottom as quickly as possible, using fast-sink tippets or adding split-shot to your leader if necessary until you can feel the fly tickle the river’s bottom.
The Skeena has fishing regulations that vary with the season. Please consult the regulations before fishing and ask local sport shops for assistance in fly selection and gear as you pursue the Skeena’s wonderful game fish.