Three Days on the Thompson

Last year I missed out on my usual trip to the Thompson river because of a combination of factors - reports were that the fish were not evident and the river was very high which makes for difficult and dangerous fishing. I had been traveling for four months already and tired of painting while sitting in the truck as the El Nino winter rained in. When another rainstorm threatened Washington and British Columbia after Halloween I headed south back to California, satisfied with traveling. My friends John and Fred steadfastly made the trip and had the river to themselves when the steelhead arrived, as eager as every to take a fly. This year, even with only part time work and tight expenses I had to make it to the Thompson.

I had five days off and some rental car coupons. Flights to Seattle are cheap and by camping two nights before joining John and Fred, along with the Canadian exchange rate over fifty percent, I was able to swing the trip. I took the earliest Friday flight to arrive on the river by mid afternoon but customs held me up for over an hour. On my return I saw a TV news story that the Hell's Angels were allegedly running cocaine north in exchange for British Columbia buds and that the usual smiling border was now being scrutinized. I guess my being from Oakland with two large duffels including three sleeping bags for one person gave them some hope of a good catch, while my valuable fishing time ticked away steadily. After a stop in the well-named town of Hope for licenses and provisions it was twilight as I reached the turnoff for the Thompson. I fished at the first access point I came to for a half hour before it was dark. At the Gold Pan Park the pool was unrecognizably lowered from previous years. The water seemed as warm as a summer trout stream. Boulders you normally have to wade to were high and dry. The low and clear water revealed a ledge and drop off to a deep channel, where without knowing it was there I caught a fish two years ago. Now I'll know even better where to work the fly carefully.

My first night camping I bundled within two sleeping bags and woke up in a sweat. It was Halloween and there wasn't even frost in the morning, and later at the diner I learned there had not yet been a frost in Spences Bridge. The long hot summer had melted the snows in the upper mountains and the river was lower than anyone in town remembered. In water this low and warm there is much more fly water as the slower current works flies with a slow tantalization, wading is much safer, and fish seem more trout-like and will move further to chase a swung fly or rise to a dry fly. Normal holding lies are no longer the only place you'll likely hook a fish. According to Arthur Lingren's Thompson River Journal at these low flows it is worthwhile to try anywhere along the river. Saturday I started at the Y hole above town, alternating between dry flies and sunken marabou streamers, and fished the whole day and the whole way down the right bank to the graveyard hole a mile below town. Nothing but an occasional boulder touched my fly. I felt I had worked the river pretty hard and it too had worked me over. As I wearily walked out of the campground shower, Fred and John were there at my tent, ready for the anglers' dinner at the local diner. Fred had taken a flu shot the day before his sixteen hour drive and looked as if the shot was as bad as the flu; he wasn't complaining but he wasn't himself.

Sunday we knew Fred was worse off than he was letting on when we found him still in his room instead of at the tailout of the famous Graveyard Pool. After a leisurely breakfast we left the Sunday morning line ups of anglers on the pools in town, and fished quiet and uncontested waters upstream. Fred and I fished a long calm pool and tailout where occasional large steelhead boiled just out of our casting distance. John hiked a half mile upstream to the next pool and hooked and lost a steelhead. After a late lunch we drove back to town for the evening fishing with commuting anglers on their way home. Fred and John caught a few trout while I still had not even felt a tug in two full days of fishing. Maybe we weren't suffering enough to catch Thompson river steelhead.

Monday I slipped out of the hotel room while John slept in the dark to be first at the Yhole. Drizzle smeared the windshield as I listened to the radio, waiting for enough light to walk the boulders to the top of the pool where I have caught fish in the past. I worked a sunken streamer on a sink tip all the way down the crease between the slow and fast current, then again now in gray misty daylight with a large waking dry fly. I fell in twice but even at dawn it was warm enough that I was not concerned for hypothermia, just uncomfortable enough to feel that I was beginning to pay some steelhead dues. I started again with a large wooly worm nymph, with more hope than ever. Three anglers walked on the difficult boulders all the way up to where I was fishing at the top of the pool, just to ask if I would mind if they fished the drift water two hundred yards downstream. Later at the bar we learned that the British Columbia Federation of Drift Fishers has been actively promoting this benevolent etiquette and cooperation with fly anglers.

I watched them cast their arcing baits far out into the main current, twice as far as I can fish a fly. Within ten minutes one was into a fish, and with their courtesy I felt none of the usual resentment. I passed and congratulated them, and fished the tailout below with still not even a bump on the line. I walked back to the car, damp but not cold, tired but with increasing enthusiasm to work the river with dedication and commitment on my last day.

I headed to the Graveyard pool, the likely place to always find Fred and sometimes find John. Fred had been there since first light while John had slept until eight enjoyed a hot breakfast before starting, just in time for one of those brief periods when the Thompson turns on and multiple hookups occur. Each had caught a fish, John had hooked and lost another, and a lure caster had played and caught a twenty-five pound fish right next to John in the upper end of the quarter mile long pool. I gave a try at the top of the pool with no luck before returning to the hotel to change into dry clothes.

It was already afternoon on my last full day, without even a tug on my line or a trout. I was beginning to accept the skunking as dues paid for past success and maybe a down payment on some future luck. I can't complain; before he ever caught one here Fred fished twenty fishless days on many trips while I had caught a fish three out of four trips here. The weather was still sunny and warm so I hiked down the river and found a comfortable rock seat and painted, in hopes of coming away with something of value if I couldn't have another steelhead memory.

Below the Graveyard Pool, Thompson River British Columbia

It is rare to have November weather suitable and comfortable for painting. When the fish don't cooperate sometimes the painting does. Now I was quietly and thoroughly satisfied without catching any fish but there were still a few hours of daylight left. Nobody was fishing up at the very top of the pool, where John and the lure angler had hooked three fish in the morning so I hiked back up there, put on waders and rigged up my light Spey rod. I had no pressing drive to catch a fish, just wanted to enjoy being in the calm river in the pleasant evening and casting comfortably, watching and manipulating the waking arc of the fly swinging across the gentle current. I tried a large dry fly called a Sofa Pillow and started wading and casting. Daylight was just dimming into twilight when a large fish boiled ten or twenty feet beyond the range of my casts, breaking my reverie. As I stepped carefully further and deeper to reach it, I didn't even see the fish that took my fly hanging below in the current. The rod throbbed with a heavy weight then a slowly pulsing unstoppable pull proved it was no trout. I don't feel much sense of accomplishment from my first steelhead on a dry fly. I didn't see it take the fly, it was not the result of masterful casting or artful control of the fly, and the fish never took more than fifty feet of line in the pool where they often do not stop. Again I learn, as I always say to beginners who worry about their skills, that you can never underestimate the importance of having your fly in the water.

If you are the friendly angler who took this picture for me, please contact me at I will gladly send you a color etching from the Thompson in appreciation.