As a kid growing up in Vancouver trips to the river were rare but very welcoming. I had the bug and could never kick the habit. I spent long hours tying flies, watching videos and reading books – you know the stuff of cool kids. As a 13 year old my father took us on a trip to the “states” on a whirlwind tour of Oregon and Washington with the ultimate goal of kicking up tumbleweeds in the western town of Winthrop. Not of the generation of Bonanza or True Grit, unimpressed by country music and with full hate of all things horse related, my trip instead was focused on the great rivers I‘d read about. After driving along the Skykomish and abusing my dad in a lecture about its history, he agreed to stop at a tackle shop and ask about fishing opportunities. This was my first introduction to a great fishery that had died and been left behind to lore. To say it was crushing is greatly understated.
800 fish. It’s always been about 800 fish since I started fishing the Thompson. You hope for more, fear for less and usually are hovering right there. So much so that the population had “stabilized at a lower abundance” whatever that means??? Less fish I guess. One year we got 1200, one year we 590 and it just felt like the Thompson was going bounce around 800 forever. But in the back of everyones mind something was seriously wrong. A huge system, with a phenomenal insect population, sockeyes that number in the millions and a booming resident trout population, the dwindling steelhead numbers just couldn’t be the new normal.
2017 hit like a ton of bricks with 2018 hot on its heels. Total and complete collapse. If lessons on rivers were relevant this was a crippling blow. Coupled with near stagnant ocean conditions and increasing competition from hatchery fish for marine food it likely became a hill too big to climb.
The Fraser watershed (of which the Thompson is its largest tributary) is no stranger to catastrophe and in 2009 a dismal sockeye return prompted a federal commission. Justice Cohen who presided over the case made a thorough and complete list of recommendations to avoid the real possibility of extinction. As the recommendations were finishing, a historic run of sockeye with estimates as high as 30 million came flooding up the Fraser and the feds found a convenient way to forget about the report. This kind of mismanagement had implications all over the drainage but for Thompson actions like these were catastrophic.
The Thompson has fans all over the world and a night in the town of Spences Bridge back in the day had the diversity of a UN summit. Today the town sits cold and debate has shuffled to the internet where activists are reduced to what if’s. Fearing the type of international attention reserved for endangered rhinos, fish managers are scrambling to enact save-face measures after squashing Species at Risk legislation Thompson Steelhead were being recommended for. It’s the all too familiar story of burying reports, massaging regulation and lobbying for industry that we have become all to accustomed to as British Columbians.
I fished the Thompson for over 15 years and there’s no other place that makes my blood boil like perched on a suicidal boulder deep in some immense tailout. I hope that one day I’m back there fishing one of the greatest fisheries and not here recounting the good ole days.