BY MARK HUME originally appearing in A River Never Sleeps
There’s no mistaking the lineage as Jack Hemingway comes striding up the river bank with a big trout tied around his waist, the blood of the catch staining his waders.
He looks for a moment if not like his famous father, Ernest Hemingway, then at least like one of the characters from his father’s stories. Nick, maybe, from Big Two-Hearted River, a man who loved wild places and wild fish.
“Thought it was a steelhead,” Jack says, untying the cloth rod case he’s used as a sash, to secure the fish, so that his hands would be free to continue casting.
“Hit that fly and tore off 50 feet of line before I realized it was just a trout.”
Just a trout. A trout the shape of a football, almost as fat around as it is long and a testament to the richness of the environment. It’s a big, white- bellied, black-spotted Thompson River rainbow of about three pounds that’s been gorging on the eggs of spawning pink salmon.
On any other river it would be a prize, but on British Columbia’s mighty Thompson, home to the biggest steelhead on earth, a trout like this is considered something of a nuisance in the fall, when the giants are returning from the sea.
A 15- to 20-pound steelhead was what he wanted. A bright silver bolt of lightning, that would have ripped 150 yards off his reel in a blur. A fish of the kind that has made this river so famous that it draws sports anglers from around the world. The proof of the steelhead’s popularity is there in the roadside pullouts, in September, October and November, where you see trucks with license plates from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California. People will drive days, weeks, to be on this river when the steelhead are in.
“At least it will make a good meal,” says Mr. Hemingway, as his fishing companions from France, Pierre Affre and Sasha Tolstoy, gather to have a look at the trout.
Mr. Affre, who has been called “the world’s greatest fisherman” because of his mastery of Atlantic salmon angling, and Mr. Tolstoy, grandson of the great Russian novelist, Count Leo Tolstoy, think it is a beautiful specimen. Resting on driftlogs and preparing a riverside lunch, they remind Mr. Hemingway that a trout like that is better than nothing, which is what they’ve caught all this morning – and in two long days of fishing on the Thompson.
They toast the trout with a drink.
“Just like Papa!” Mr. Tolstoy laughs as Mr. Hemingway poses for a picture, a Cuban cigar in one hand, a martini glass in the other, a broad smile on his face and the blood of the trout still running down his waders.
Soon they are back on the water; this fishing for Thompson River steelhead is serious business.
Jack Hemingway likes to fish alone, wading carefully over the river’s slippery boulders, and casting gracefully with a big two-handed rod.
“You don’t want to fool with a trout rod on this river,” he says. “If you hit a steelhead it will rip tackle like that apart.”
He lifts his line and throws a burly fly the size of his thumb far out across the river. The fly, a Thompson River Rat, which he likens to fishing “with an entire chicken,” cuts a V as it skates back toward him. This is known as a waking fly, because of the little trough it cuts in the water. When steelhead see it, it triggers an urge in them that biologists have never been able to explain. The fish are fasting, lying relatively still on the river bottom, and waiting for spring, when they will spawn up the Nicola, Bonaparte and Deadman Rivers, small tributaries that meet the Thompson near Spences Bridge. They are not completely dormant, as they wait for the spring spawn, because a fly can stir them. Sometimes they will come up through the water column to take a fly in a huge swirl. It is that electrifying moment that anglers wait for — and sometimes they wait, and wait, and wait . . .
Historically the river had a run of about 20,000 steelhead. But in the past 40 years the stock has been decimated by over-fishing. For years, too many steelhead ended up as dead as the trout that’s been taken for supper. Sports anglers killed some, but the most damage was done at sea by commercial salmon fishers and in the lower Fraser River, by native fishers.
All sports-caught steelhead on the Thompson now must be released alive. And on the lower Fraser, native fishing authorities have been striving to reduce the by-catch. But commercial nets still continue to kill the fish as they make their way home.
The run for the past several years has numbered around 2,500. With so few fish, spread over such a big river, catching one with a sport fishing rod takes skill, perseverance and luck.
On average, a good steelheader will get one fish a day. But it is nothing to go for days, even weeks, without hitting a fish.
Mr. Hemingway and his colleagues do not want to go home blanked. So they are fishing hard. They cast, let their fly sweep an arc across the current, then step down and cast again. The routine is repeated so often, their arms ache by the end of the day.
“It is a very long way to come,” says Mr. Affre of his journey. “It’s like fishing for Atlantic salmon in France. One fish every two years.” He shrugs in dismay.
Mr. Affre heard about the Thompson River a few years ago when he was fishing on the Dean River, in northern B.C. He heard it was a beautiful river with biggest, wildest steelhead you could ever encounter.
“Then Jack came here and caught a great fish. So, we had to come,” he says.
Mr. Hemingway first fished the Thompson several years ago, after passing it on driving trips to fish rivers in northern B.C.
“I’d been driving by it for many years on my way to the Bulkley Valley. I like to go up there in the fall to fish and hunt grouse. You can go from one pool to the next, fishing steelhead, hunting the best places in between. It’s marvelous,” he said of the Bulkley.
But then word of the Thompson’s great steelhead reached him and he stopped in Spences Bridge for a week, staying at the Steelhead Inn, a charming old hotel that overlooks some of the river’s best holding water, and where the rooms vibrate at night from passing freight trains.
“That first fish hit me and she was gone like that,” he says slapping his hands together, recalling how the wild steelhead exploded on his fly. “She took out a hundred yards faster than you could believe possible, and jumped way across the river. It was an incredible thing.”
He took one fish a day that trip. By most standards, terrible angling. But the fish were so stunningly beautiful and such wild fighters, that he went away from the river deeply impressed.
Mr. Hemingway, who has fished around the world, and who on this fall day could be fishing anywhere on earth that he wanted, looks at the river and shakes his head.
What would it take, he asks, to convince the Canadian government to manage the Thompson River in a way that the steelhead would thrive?
“Can your fisheries minister be convinced to manage it properly?” he asks.
“Would it help if I wrote to him? Something has to be done before it’s too late.
“It’s such an incredible resource. It’s spectacular. You can see the habitat’s in good shape. The water is clean. It’s the problem with commercial netting you have to solve.”
Thompson steelhead are intercepted in salmon fisheries in the inshore Pacific, and within the Fraser River. The government is attempting to reduce the interception rate by spot closures and by encouraging both commercial and native fishermen to use selective methods, like fish wheels. Those attempts have been successful to a degree, but still too many steelhead are being killed.
Mr. Affre says throughout Europe governments have realized that Atlantic salmon are too valuable to be harvested in nets for the meat markets, where they are sold for a few dollars a pound. Instead, they are prized as sports fish and are protected until they are in the rivers, where each fish is worth hundreds of times as much to sports anglers. He makes a face and gestures with his hands in exasperation. The lessons in Europe are obvious, he says, and Canada should learn from them.
In the Thompson River steelhead, British Columbia has a resource that could be developed into one of the world’s greatest sports fisheries. Instead, the government has allowed the run to become so badly depleted that even the best anglers must struggle to get a single fish.
This year the run is so small that the river may be closed to fishing.
NOTE: Jack Hemingway died before I was able to follow up on an invitation to fish with him on Silver Creek, in Idaho. -M.H.