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  • Simple Steelhead Question

    Where do steelhead live in the winter? Large lakes, rivers or ocean? I've always assumed they spent the summer in the ocean, migrated to lakes in the wintertime and back to the ocean in the spring after the spawn, but I'm assuming sometimes they stay in the rivers all winter since some rivers don't have large lakes to over winter in.

  • #2
    A friend that lives on the Kasilof said it just opened up a couple days ago a few miles down river from the bridge. I don't know if it's even opened up at the bridge or above.
    Sheep hunting...... the pain goes away, but the stupidity remains...!!!

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    • #3
      Thanks 4mer, yeah a friend of mine also told me that he floated the Kasilof the other day from Tustmena lake down so I would assume that is all open. I was actually just wondering about a simple biology/life cycle question. I just wanted to know where steelhead live in the winter time. I have read sometimes they live in lakes. Like I know the steelhead in the Gulkana river overwinter in Dickey lake, but I wasn't sure if all steelhead do that or if some of them stay in the rivers all winter long, or if some go back into the ocean in the wintertime. Some steelhead rivers don't have a lake to overwinter in, so I was just curious is all.

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      • #4
        In SE .... the Steelhead return to the ocean after spawning. Sometimes it's a very quick in and out of the small creeks & rivers. Maybe some stay in the lakes on systems that have lakes but most creeks & rivers don't have lakes.
        johnnie laird

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        • #5
          I thought it all depended on whether they are spring or fall run. Spring run goes up early and does not over winter, fall run comes up late and over winters in deep pockets or lakes.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by kenaibow fan View Post
            I thought it all depended on whether they are spring or fall run. Spring run goes up early and does not over winter, fall run comes up late and over winters in deep pockets or lakes.
            Yeah, I think you are right. I've heard that also. I've also heard that it's mostly the females that are spring run and don't stay in the rivers very long, and males that are fall run and overwinter in the lakes and rivers. Can anyone verify if this is correct?

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Bushwhack Jack View Post

              Yeah, I think you are right. I've heard that also. I've also heard that it's mostly the females that are spring run and don't stay in the rivers very long, and males that are fall run and overwinter in the lakes and rivers. Can anyone verify if this is correct?
              "Mostly females"? What sort of ratio is it? Kind of hard to believe 1000 females could have their eggs fertilized by 20 or 30 males. Use whatever ratio you want, I thought once a male dumps his milt, he's done for the season and if that's the case any ration less (or more) than 50/50 would result in either a lot of eggs unfertilized or over fertilized.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Gary View Post

                "Mostly females"? What sort of ratio is it? Kind of hard to believe 1000 females could have their eggs fertilized by 20 or 30 males. Use whatever ratio you want, I thought once a male dumps his milt, he's done for the season and if that's the case any ration less (or more) than 50/50 would result in either a lot of eggs unfertilized or over fertilized.
                Take it easy. You are misunderstanding what I am saying. First of all, I'm not saying that's what happens. That's just something I've heard and if you recall the purpose of this thread is to find out what really happens. So take it for a grain of salt. Second of all, what I've heard, IS THAT THE MALES STAY IN THE WINTER AND OVERWINTER IN THE RIVER OR IN LAKES. AND IF THAT IS TRULY THE CASE, THERE COULD BE JUST AS MANY MALES AS FEMALES IN THE RIVER AT THE SAME TIME. However, I never made any mention about males and females being in the river at different times, and I never suggested that what I was saying was factual. It was just one plausible explanation for what might take place. Again, if you read my original post at the top, I am inquiring because I don't know what really happens. And I've yet to hear anyone else's explanation. So, by all means, if you think you know all the answers, why don't you explain it to us????

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                • #9
                  I spoke with a ret. Bio who has done some Steelhead work in SE stream surveys. In fact the fall / winter run fish do winter over .... He didn't know the male / female numbers of the run. But there probably is some mixing during spawning when the spring run arrives. Then most of them do seem to return the ocean after the spring action. But those fall / winter runs are not in all the systems that have a spring run.
                  johnnie laird

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by muskeg View Post
                    I spoke with a ret. Bio who has done some Steelhead work in SE stream surveys. In fact the fall / winter run fish do winter over .... He didn't know the male / female numbers of the run. But there probably is some mixing during spawning when the spring run arrives. Then most of them do seem to return the ocean after the spring action. But those fall / winter runs are not in all the systems that have a spring run.
                    Thanks Muskeg, I appreciate that info from the biologist. That was some useful information. Rep points coming your way if I can. Tight lines.

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                    • #11
                      Steelhead have one of, if not the most diverse life cycle of any fish, certainly anadromous salmonids. It is often hard to compare steelhead from one geographically and environmentally diverse area to another, although there are many similarities. Steelhead, like most animals, adapt their behavior and things like run/spawn timing to average local conditions over long periods of time.

                      Traditionally speaking there are two types of steelhead, "summer run" and "winter run." Bear in mind that all steelhead and rainbow trout are "genetically" identical, Onchorhynchus myKiss. Same fish, different behavior in different places.

                      Depending on where you are at, most "winter run" fish don't return truly in the dead of winter, and most "summer run" fish usually don't return in the middle of summer. The fish are typically separated or identified by behavior more than the exact timing of their return to freshwater.

                      The easiest way to differentiate between the two is that winter fish return sexually mature and ready to spawn. They spend very little time in freshwater pre and post spawn, and typically head back to the salt quickly if they survive spawning.

                      Summer fish on the other hand return sexually immature and spend a significant amount of time in freshwater preparing to spawn. In the northern latitudes, most summer fish spend the winter in their freshwater environments and then spawn in the spring or early summer.


                      My understanding of the fall fish on systems like the Situk, Kenai Pen streams, and SE AK is that the fall fish display summer run behavior, spending winter in the freshwater before spawning in the spring and heading back to sea if they survive. The spring fish, in the systems that have them, behave like winter run fish. They return, spawn, and head back out in fairly short order if they survive.

                      As others have mentioned, in many systems there tends to be some overlap between the timing of the two runs. As such, both are classified by the bulk of the returning fish and their spawning behavior and timing as opposed to the exact date they enter the river.

                      This behavior and run timing, as seen here in AK that is, is similar to the steelhead runs throughout most of northern British Columbia and parts of the northern L48.

                      Across the L48, the run timing of summer runs vs. winter runs is a lot more "traditional," especially on the west coast in the shorter river systems. Summer fish start showing up in spring and early summer and most are gone by the time the winter fish start showing up in November and December. The timing and behavior of these runs can also vary quite a bit from the west coast to the middle part of the country like the great lakes where steelhead have been transplanted. Summer steelhead on the Snake and Columbia systems behave a lot more like the more northern fish, typically spending winter in the rivers and spawning in the spring etc.

                      So. How to sum all of this up. It is very hard to make "always" and "never" statements about steelhead as their behavior varies greatly from place to place and run to run. There are exceptions to every rule or norm. Their behavior has been adapted over time to provide for maximum survival of the run based on river conditions and the spawning environment. This diversity is one of the many reasons steelhead are my favorite fish to pursue by far. The fact that they might live to spawn as many as 4 times, though that is exceptionally rare, is also remarkable. I love to fish for salmon, don't get me wrong, but next to myKiss, they just don't carry the same allure.

                      Getting back to some of the OP's questions, in some systems steelhead do over winter in lakes. I think some of the fish in the Kenai Pen rivers have been known to spend winter in the lakes for example before moving into the upper rivers or smaller tributaries to spawn in the spring.


                      Summer fish in some of the bigger BC systems have been documented entering and leaving their overwintering grounds as many as 6 times before finally committing to their spawning spot in the river in the spring and getting their business done. Most of the fish that over-winter move around their river or freshwater system a lot, seeking ideal habitat to hang out in (food, shelter, etc.) while they wait to mature and spawn.

                      Anyhow, I hope some of this helps with some of the questions and a basic understanding of a very complex and super cool fish.

                      I’ll close with a quote from Lani Waller in “A Steelheader’s Way,” I don’t care how you catch them, as long as you treat them well and with respect.

                      Good luck.

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                      • #12
                        Oh and one other thing I should have addressed in the last post, there is some variation in timing in a given run between when "most" males and females return. Typically more females return on the early side of the run and more males on the later side of the run but both return throughout. This timing and slight variation is within the run though, not males in the spring and female in the fall or something to that effect.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by ColeyG View Post
                          Steelhead have one of, if not the most diverse life cycle of any fish, certainly anadromous salmonids. It is often hard to compare steelhead from one geographically and environmentally diverse area to another, although there are many similarities. Steelhead, like most animals, adapt their behavior and things like run/spawn timing to average local conditions over long periods of time.

                          Traditionally speaking there are two types of steelhead, "summer run" and "winter run." Bear in mind that all steelhead and rainbow trout are "genetically" identical, Onchorhynchus myKiss. Same fish, different behavior in different places.

                          Depending on where you are at, most "winter run" fish don't return truly in the dead of winter, and most "summer run" fish usually don't return in the middle of summer. The fish are typically separated or identified by behavior more than the exact timing of their return to freshwater.

                          The easiest way to differentiate between the two is that winter fish return sexually mature and ready to spawn. They spend very little time in freshwater pre and post spawn, and typically head back to the salt quickly if they survive spawning.

                          Summer fish on the other hand return sexually immature and spend a significant amount of time in freshwater preparing to spawn. In the northern latitudes, most summer fish spend the winter in their freshwater environments and then spawn in the spring or early summer.


                          My understanding of the fall fish on systems like the Situk, Kenai Pen streams, and SE AK is that the fall fish display summer run behavior, spending winter in the freshwater before spawning in the spring and heading back to sea if they survive. The spring fish, in the systems that have them, behave like winter run fish. They return, spawn, and head back out in fairly short order if they survive.

                          As others have mentioned, in many systems there tends to be some overlap between the timing of the two runs. As such, both are classified by the bulk of the returning fish and their spawning behavior and timing as opposed to the exact date they enter the river.

                          This behavior and run timing, as seen here in AK that is, is similar to the steelhead runs throughout most of northern British Columbia and parts of the northern L48.

                          Across the L48, the run timing of summer runs vs. winter runs is a lot more "traditional," especially on the west coast in the shorter river systems. Summer fish start showing up in spring and early summer and most are gone by the time the winter fish start showing up in November and December. The timing and behavior of these runs can also vary quite a bit from the west coast to the middle part of the country like the great lakes where steelhead have been transplanted. Summer steelhead on the Snake and Columbia systems behave a lot more like the more northern fish, typically spending winter in the rivers and spawning in the spring etc.

                          So. How to sum all of this up. It is very hard to make "always" and "never" statements about steelhead as their behavior varies greatly from place to place and run to run. There are exceptions to every rule or norm. Their behavior has been adapted over time to provide for maximum survival of the run based on river conditions and the spawning environment. This diversity is one of the many reasons steelhead are my favorite fish to pursue by far. The fact that they might live to spawn as many as 4 times, though that is exceptionally rare, is also remarkable. I love to fish for salmon, don't get me wrong, but next to myKiss, they just don't carry the same allure.

                          Getting back to some of the OP's questions, in some systems steelhead do over winter in lakes. I think some of the fish in the Kenai Pen rivers have been known to spend winter in the lakes for example before moving into the upper rivers or smaller tributaries to spawn in the spring.


                          Summer fish in some of the bigger BC systems have been documented entering and leaving their overwintering grounds as many as 6 times before finally committing to their spawning spot in the river in the spring and getting their business done. Most of the fish that over-winter move around their river or freshwater system a lot, seeking ideal habitat to hang out in (food, shelter, etc.) while they wait to mature and spawn.

                          Anyhow, I hope some of this helps with some of the questions and a basic understanding of a very complex and super cool fish.

                          I’ll close with a quote from Lani Waller in “A Steelheader’s Way,” I don’t care how you catch them, as long as you treat them well and with respect.

                          Good luck.
                          Great information ColeyG, I'd give you some rep points if I knew how. Can't figure it out with the new website upgrade! Good info, very helpful?

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