On an early August afternoon in 1905, earth clinging to the stone tower just south of Spences Bridge lost its grip and collapsed into the valley below. Tons of rock fell into the Thompson River, damming it for several hours.
Eighteen people died in that landslide. The indigenous people who made this valley their home believed that the dead would sometimes stay in the place of their passing. James Teit, the 19th century ethnographer who studied these people, wrote that these shades were light gray in color, with mouths and eyes that appeared “like a blue fire.” Sometimes, waiting in the dark for first light, you can see them. When mists are on the water on the outskirts of Spences Bridge, apparitions appear on this pool that Thompson anglers call the Graveyard.
For over two decades, I’ve been part of the Skeleton Crew that fishes this pool in sync with the arrival of the Thompson’s remarkable autumn run of steelhead. Wild Thompson steelhead are powerful, aggressive salmonids that are entirely in character with their natal waters.
The Thompson is not a river that welcomes you. It confronts you. It is broad, strong and unforgiving. To win a chance to present your fly, you wade waist deep in heavy current, anchoring your feet on the riverbed’s greasy cobbles, casting only when you are certain of your balance. Often, it’s so cold at first light you must break ice off the rod guides so your fly line doesn’t jam when you cast. Suffer a bad slip, or lose your composure when a fish attacks your fly, and you might find yourself among the shades.
For decades, anglers have come to Spences Bridge from all over the world seeking the challenge of the Graveyard, hoping to hook a wild Thompson steelhead. Each one brought to hand and reverently released is a memory for life, But this year, the Thompson is reeling from the weakest steelhead return on record. Biologists estimate that fewer than 200 fish will survive to spawn compared to thousands in decades past.
Everyone has an opinion about how to protect future generations of these fish. Some want the Thompson closed to preserve the vestiges of 2017’s year-class. Others oppose this, believing that a river empty of anglers encourages poachers to kill steelhead. These opposing views within the angling community are symptomatic of a significant problem facing Thompson steelhead — an angling community divided, and focused on the wrong things.
For years anglers fought amongst themselves about the use of bait on the river, some wanting to continue to use it, others saying it contributed to steelhead mortality.
A few years ago, when bait was finally banned, the anti-bait brigade claimed victory, both for itself and the river. But the bait battle was our ultimate undoing. It created a toxic environment within the Thompson angling community. We fought amongst ourselves so loudly and for so long, shooting at each other while the enemy rolled its tanks right down our streets.
The Enemy? Interception of Thompson steelhead in commercial and indigenous net fisheries in the Fraser River and Fraser approach areas, a couple of hundred kilometres downstream from Spences Bridge. As much as 25 per cent of migrating Thompson steelhead are lost to these nets each year. Unlike the complex puzzle of climate change, working together to ban these net fisheries during steelhead migration periods was a straightforward opportunity to support steelhead survival. But we didn’t do it. So now we can’t fish with bait, but there aren’t any steelhead left to fish for. Once considered the greatest of all steelhead rivers, today the Thompson warns of what we accomplish by picking the wrong battles.
The Thompson steelhead run has been in decline for years. As the run diminished, so did the opportunity. The Thompson was always a tough river to fish — the toughest —but a decade of smaller and smaller runs and the threat of emergency river closures gradually eliminated a whole group of travelling anglers. They moved on to lesser — but more reliable — waters, leaving the Thompson and a small group of diehards on their own. A mighty voice, the voice of the international angling community and the tourism dollars it brought to a less-travelled part of British Columbia, was lost.
Lost. Like the run of great fish. Like the angling culture it nurtured. Like a history we forgot, or never knew, where men with blackened faces ignored the night cold and speared the great fish in waters illuminated by a torch in their canoe.
Ghosts of the Thompson? They’re real. They emanate blue fire, and the colours of torchlight. But there are so few left, and we’ve waited too long—is it pointless to continue?
Not yet. Not while the final few wander the waters between Lytton and Savona. We must finally do what we should have done long ago. There’s much at stake. Perhaps the very soul of our sport. Perhaps even our own.
We dishonour ourselves by abandoning them.Dana Sturn is a British Columbia angler and conservationist who writes for Gray’s Sporting Journal and other publications. Scott Simpson is a former Vancouver Sun reporter and outdoors columnist.