High Desert Holy Water

High Desert Holy Water

A journey to classic steelhead water.

  • By: Ehor Boyanowsky
Thompson.jpg

I DROVE UP ON ONE OF THOSE MOON-BATHED EVENINGS WHEN BRITISH COLUMBIA’S THOMPSON RIVER VALLEY APPEARS AS AN ALIEN LANDSCAPE CONJURED UP IN SILVER LIGHT AND SHADOW BY SOME VENERABLE, STORY-SPINNING MEDICINE MAN. TESTOSTERONE-CRAZED BIGHORN SHEEP WITH FIRE-OPAL EYES, A WILDLIFE HAZARD THAT GETS A BIG-GAME HUNTER’S BLOOD BOILING AT THE END OF A THREE-HOUR DRIVE NORTHEAST FROM VANCOUVER, BRIEFLY BLOCKED MY WAY AT SPENCE’S BRIDGE.

As I pulled up to the gate at Nighthawk, a riverside sanctuary I stumbled across after a 10-year search for Thompson River property, the pungent odor of sagebrush filled my nostrils—ambrosia to this desert rat. Serenaded by a couple coyotes, I pitched the 40-year-old Eureka Drawtite tent and lit a fire. The cliff across the river, now a gigantic drive-in screen illuminated by the projector moon, erupted as another irrigation-triggered avalanche crashed to the river. And then there was gratifying nothingness. Silence.

After feeding my English setter, Thompson S. Hunter, and sipping a dram of Aberlour as the fire shrank to a cache of glowing coals, I crawled into a cocoon-like old down bag. Recalling the morning a rattler repeatedly crawled through camp, I resisted the temptation to sleep under the stars. Away from the cares of city and career, I slept the dreamless sleep of the dead.

Waking at nine instead of seven, I decided, having missed the dawn fishing patrol, not to rush. I lingered over coffee after bacon and eggs, savoring the spectacle of mule deer and Canada geese grazing in the pasture that unfurled toward the river, rimmed by giant ponderosas, some green, some now red in death from the pine-beetle plague.

I drove down to Spence’s Bridge, steelhead mecca, where the Nicola River, birth mother of the world’s most powerful steelhead, joins the Thompson and steelheaders from the four corners of Earth, eyes glazed with lust for a giant fish, gather in October and November. As I approached the Graveyard Pool, the panting of my ever-hopeful pup punctuated the rattle overhead of tinder-dry cottonwood leaves. Alas, even on this pool, where on a dry fly I landed my two largest steelhead, magnificent creatures pushing 30 pounds, I was less than hopeful. The rumor mill said anglers faced the weakest steelhead run in 20 years.

Then I received signs for hope. A lone spoon-caster worked the slack belly separating the head of the run from the long glide of the tail. Any luck? I asked. He’d just lost one. Above him, a fly-fisher washed his hands in the river, raving about the giant he’d just released. How long had he been here? Less than an hour, he answered.

I could tell he was a newcomer. As I entered the pool at the head, he stepped into the run below me. Bad form, especially for someone recently graced with a fish. Steelhead etiquette dictates that after you’ve played a fish you go to the top of the run, behind those working through. I said nothing and we chatted pleasantly. Then the surface of the river swelled: materializing specter-like before us in midcurrent was the agonizingly slow head and tail rise of a great fish. Good! There were more fish out there.

Within 10 casts the water bulged around my new friend’s wet fly. If he hooks another I’ll know there is no God, I thought rather churlishly. After five more casts I hadn’t found a taker. After 10 more casts I was in the zone. My sulphur yellow Thompson River Rat scurried toward shore and then was gone, replaced by a tailwalking apparition that ripped off 100 yards on its first run, changed gears and clocked another 100 yards on its second charge. Fifteen minutes later the fish, a female around 20 pounds, slugged it out in the shallows. As I furiously wound in line, she made one more leap, landed headfirst, threw the hook and was gone. The next day Thompson, the bird dog, and I went looking for chukar partridge. On Sunday we returned and, to my amazement, I hooked two more steelhead. Now, I was a man at peace.

The Thompson River flows for nearly 62 miles (100 kilometers) from its outlet on Kamloops Lake, in south-central British Columbia, to its meeting with the Fraser River at Lytton. The alchemy of Kamloops Lake stirs the more nutrient-rich South Thompson and the more sterile North Thompson into the ideally alkaline-balanced mainstem that hosts myriad insects and other aquatic forms of life, all food for the young rainbow trout and smolting steelhead, plus chinook, pink and coho salmon. While the Thompson is mostly noted for steelhead, it provides excellent resident rainbow fishing and unique options for chinook.

Because the Trans-Canada Highway follows the Thompson’s meandering course, it’s every angler’s river. Although public boat access is restricted to the provincial parks at Juniper Beach near Wallhachin and Gold Pan south of Spence’s Bridge, an angler on foot can fish virtually every mile of river. Most steelheaders stick with the lower portion of river from Spence’s Bridge to the mouth where the fish are most abundant.

Thompson steelheading, its proximity to the highway notwithstanding, is barely 60 years old. At one time, biologists declared the barrier at Hell’s Gate on the Fraser impassible to steelhead. Two gents coming home from the interior in 1946 stopped to fish and encountered a race of powerful fish, clearly not resident rainbows. Lee Straight, outdoor editor of The Vancouver Sun, heard of their exploits, checked out the river and the world of steelhead changed forever. Steelhead mecca in the desert was discovered and the pilgrimages began. At the time, reaching the Thompson required a two-day trip from the coast.

The river’s glory days were the mid-1980s when biologists counted 3,500 steelhead on spawning beds after the commercial fleet, comprising aboriginal and commercial fishermen, killed 5,000 fish; and the aboriginal food, social and ceremonial fishery killed another 5,000. At a limit of one steelhead a day, the Thompson’s sport-fishery killed 1,500 more. At that time, the run was at least 15,000 strong when it rounded the corner at Nitinat, just above the United States border at the south tip of Vancouver Island.

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There, and in U.S. waters, the Thompson-bound steelhead encountered a deadly gauntlet of gillnetters fishing low-value chum salmon. In addition, those steelhead faced more nets in the Fraser. Even with those interceptions, the fishing was outstanding. Anglers could only ponder wistfully about how great the fishing might have been if most of those fish made it unscathed to Lytton.
Then came mysterious forces at sea that reduced smolt survival from 20 percent to somewhere between two and five percent and fishing hasn’t again approached its former glory.
In fact, each year Canada’s Ministry of Environment decides when or if to open the river for steelhead. That decision rests on the success rates of test gillnet fisheries on the lower Fraser. Once biologists are sure that the Thompson will see at least 850 spawners, the fishery is opened. Typically, that happens in early or mid-October. In 2007 the season opened October 27. Each year the river closes December 31. The 10-year average for Thompson spawners is 1,500. Studies say the Thompson’s habitat could produce a run of 40,000 steelhead. Catch-and-release is mandatory on wild steelhead, province-wide.
In 2007 provincial fisheries considered a total closure of the steelhead fishery, a threat that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) ignored in pursuing a maximum harvest policy in its Fraser River chum fishery, scheduling openings during late October and early November that could have wiped out remnants of the steelhead run.
Most years, the timing of commercial openings is fine-tuned so that fewer steelhead are taken. That trend is due to the efforts of the Steelhead Society, The King Fishers, various fly clubs, such as Totem Flyfishers and the British Columbia Federation of Driftfishers, organizations comprising concerned anglers from every corner of the province and people who lobby DFO.
Due to persuasive efforts of the Steelhead Society, many Fraser River aboriginal bands now use selective terminal methods that allow live release of steelhead and are more sympathetic to conservation. Finally, anglers have long accepted catch-and-release of wild steelhead on both the Fraser River bars and on the Thompson and that mindset assists the fishery. Unfortunately, over the past two years DFO returned to the bad old days of indiscriminate gillnet openings, even during the height of the steelhead run. Progress, as usual, turned out to be an illusion.
Although Thompson River steelhead are among the world’s largest and most aggressive, taking lure or fly, even dry fly, eagerly (I once landed a 20-pounder on a Thompson River Rat on New Year’s Eve with the water temperature reading 34 degrees Fahrenheit), the catch rate, according to regional biologist Rob Bison, is one fish every four days.
Despite those odds, anglers flock to the Thompson each fall searching for an elusive 20- or 30-pound ironhead. Unfortunately, in recent years, Bison reports the numbers of giant fish—meaning 25- to 30-pounders—as on the decline. A big one these days, Bison notes, goes about 20 pounds.

While the Thompson’s steelhead fishery is in flux, the river’s rainbow trout offer a dependable, entertaining and often overlooked alternative.
Opening day, June 1. The river has not yet risen, yet I slip on the rocks in my aluminum-cleated wading boots. I consider the Thompson as the slipperiest river on the planet, a slather of gray-green slime coating cannonball-size rocks that roll downstream if you perch on them. At the moment there is no place I’d rather be: no waders, only shorts, for the air temperature at 8 p.m. is 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
I tie a size 10 Goddard Caddis onto six-pound tippet and cast my 5-weight rod quartering upstream. Twenty more casts and still nothing. Time to change to a weighted nymph, I muse, the larval form of caddis, or as we call them in British Columbia, sedges. I change to a beadhead Halfback Nymph, a time-honored pattern. Then I spot them. Nighthawks. First a few wheeling overhead, then a blitzkrieg of dive-bombing raptors. The air crackles with their buzzing and zapping. It is clear what they are after. I am suddenly in a blizzard of cinnamon sedges. Still, no rises and no takes on my deep-riding nymph.
I spot a rising trout barely breaking the surface and choose to fish an unweighted nymph in the surface film. Soon I’m into a tumbling 18-inch rainbow, a steelhead in miniature that takes me deep into my backing. Before the hatch diminishes, I land five more fish stretching to 22 inches.
August 1. The osprey wheeling overhead in bright sun is doing better than I am, having just crashed from great height into the river to emerge with a lovely trout. I tie on a deep-sinking black and silver Bunny Leech. Within 10 casts, I taste success. The line begins to peel off my reel, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. I have hooked the trout of a lifetime, I muse while stumbling downstream with only two turns of backing on the arbor. Then the fish breaks water impossibly far below, a silver and bronze giant of at least 30 pounds. Impossible, I think, because steelhead don’t enter the river until late September even in the best years.
As I soon learned, that was no steelhead; the Thompson’s biggest secret is a successful DFO management effort, in tandem with the Pacific Salmon Treaty, to recover chinook-salmon stocks. In an average year there are at least 100,000 chinook, a mix of hatchery and wild fish, passing through the Thompson, some still chrome when they arrive. In a good year there may be as many as 150,000 to 200,000 of them.
Although major chinook sport-fisheries exist to the north on the Shuswap, North Thompson and Clearwater rivers, only a brief kill fishery exists on the mainstem Thompson. That fishery occurs at Spence’s Bridge, but only on a few weekends and only between the town’s two bridges, even though four separate runs of fish, ranging from six to 40 pounds, enter the river at various times between March and October.
Of course, there is nothing to prevent fly fishers from targeting big chinook and releasing their catch. As a bonus, anglers are allowed to keep jack chinook, the precocious little males that are plentiful, eager feeders, great fighters on light tackle and delicious in the pan. One time, I hooked a jack on the dry fly, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As one learns how to take chinook through art and artifice on the fly, a major sporting opportunity could blossom, something to benefit the local area. There is nothing so reassuring to an angler as knowing that some fisheries are healthy in the holy water.
October 15. The river just opened for steelhead, which means the Thompson’s rainbows are fair game, too. Sacha Tolstoi has decided to forgo steelhead fishing in order to target trout. He has come a long way, a grueling 24-hour flight from Montevideo, just to spend a week on the Thompson. On a long, lonely cobble bar guarded by two vigilant ospreys, he sees fish bulging in the surface film. He ties on a hopper and watches it skitter toward shore before it’s engulfed by a fine fish that rockets downstream.
Giving chase, Sasha can’t recover line and is soon to the end of his backing. Holding the end of it at the reel’s arbor, he watches a five-pound crescent of stainless steel cartwheel in air and disappear. Three more times he hooks similar fish and finally lands one, a 4½-pounder. He wearily stumbles out of the current and lights a Cuban cigar. The trip was worth it.
Since provincial fisheries imposed a bait ban upstream of the pump house at Ebsen, some 10 miles above Spence’s Bridge, trout fishing has gradually improved. Now, as we fish through the season of hatches—chironomids and sedges, and then mayflies and, with high water in June and July, giant stoneflies (Pteronarcys californica) followed by terrestrials in August and September—encountering a 24-inch trout is the goal. Even husky five- and six-pounders are not beyond possibility when trout dine on the flesh of carrion salmon in October.
Ironically, the Thompson, for all of its steelhead fame, is the best easily accessed trout river in British Columbia. In addition, commercial guiding is not allowed on the river, for any species, leaving it, seductively, for independent anglers.

It’s December and although we have caught a few very large trout, we have hooked no steelhead in the upper river. My son, Alexei, and I are having dinner at the Lytton Hotel, sharing the now-Korean-run restaurant with a gathering of local aboriginals. The mercury has fallen and I try to convince Alexei to come home, but he is determined to land his first Thompson steelhead.
I head for the coast but he, despite my admonitions regarding dangerous driving conditions, and a mercury reading disastrously close to 0 Fahrenheit, decides to stay. I wish him well and depart for Vancouver in my 4Runner. Alexei drives a treacherous road through the moonless winter night to a motel. He sleeps until dawn, then rises in near subzero temperatures to be first on the river.
He needn’t have fretted. There is no competition today. His waders crackle with each step, instantly frozen, and the snow crunches underfoot. Great ice floes drift past and he makes his first cast onto one of them, then flicks his fly off and into the mercury-thick river. He is immediately into a fish, a nice bull trout of some four or five pounds. His hands turn to ice releasing it. He re-adjusts his balaclava and thaws a glove in his mouth.
On the next cast, he hooks a bigger fish, a fine steelhead of some 10 or 12 pounds, but the line has frozen to his Spey rod and snaps off the tip. Nevertheless he plays the fish well enough and lands it: his first interior steelhead. He’s beside himself with joy as he releases it. In the next hour he will hook, along with several ice floes, more bull trout and steelhead but land very few, before he realizes his hands are freezing, his feet are without feeling. He stumbles to shore. It is the happiest day of his life, especially when his old, tired truck starts instantly and he motors homeward. In steelheading, particularly Thompson River steelheading, persistence pays.

Ehor Boyanowsky is president of the Totem Flyfishers of British Columbia. He teaches at Simon Fraser University and has a forthcoming book, Savage Gods, Silver Ghosts: In the Wild with Ted Hughes (Douglas and McIntyre Publishing Group).