Lethal Gear on the Thompson is Crazy

Letter by Bob Hooton with Photography by Nick Didlick

 In an open letter to Steve Thomson, British Columbia’s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, former government steelhead biologist Bob Hooton takes aim at a policy that has kept the Thompson River open to fishing, despite year after year of dismal steelhead returns.

The Thompson has the biggest steelhead in B.C. – maybe on the planet – but damn few of them. If steelheading is the sport of 1,000 casts, then the Thompson is a steelhead river of 10,000 casts. Expect to put in days, sometimes weeks on the water, for every fish that rolls on your fly. But when one does take, you will be electrified. And that’s what keeps people coming back – and because people keep coming the B.C. government refuses to close the fishery, or at least restrict it to fly only,  and make a serious push to restore the Thompson run.

This big, beautiful river could and should support tens times the number of steelhead it has. And if it ever did get back to being anything near its’ historical greatness, it would once again takes its place as one of the planet’s greatest steelhead rivers. For now, however, the government allows the resource to limp along – and it allows bait fishermen, who bleed almost everthing they catch, to hook and release precious stock. And that,  as Bob points out, is kind of crazy. – Mark Hume

Lethal Gear

The late Jack Hemingway casts a fly on the Thompson River

Dear Minister Thompson:

Today your Ministry announced the Thompson River steelhead fishery would open on Saturday, Oct 12 [2013]. I’m instructed the opening is based on 21 steelhead caught at the DFO [federeal department of Fisheries and Oceans] test fishery site on the lower Fraser. Your technical gurus somehow translate this to an expectation of a required spawning escapement (850 fish) six months hence that will magically seed the productive steelhead habitat of one of the largest steelhead systems in British Columbia. I’ll offer that, at present, there might be a maximum of 500 steelhead currently in the Thompson River. For perspective, consider that a number of tiny summer steelhead rivers on Vancouver Island support steelhead populations not far off that number. Because the populations supported by those rivers are so vulnerable and because their conservation has been led by forward thinking managers, all of them have been either closed to fishing or regulated on the basis of single, barbless hook, artificial lure only and catch and release since the mid to late 1970s. Call it enlightened. In fact every summer steelhead stream in the province except the Thompson has been managed similarly for almost that long.

A shotgun opening on a holiday weekend and the unconscionable measure of allowing the use of the most lethal terminal gear known in the summer steelhead world is the perfect storm for the obviously threatened, world renowned Thompson steelhead. I’ve seen all the numbers and the pathetic Ministry statement of 2012 that “the population has stabilized at a lower level of productivity” and I’m sure I’ll witness the same lame defense again this year. What your people fail to understand is this is 2013, not the 1970s. The Kamloops Ministry staff have been completely out of touch and out of synch with the rest of the steelhead management world for that long. There is much room for debate on whether or not the Thompson should open at all but there is no informed opinion that the perfect storm about to unfold on those fish again this year is defensible.

Conservation was once defined as wise use. The current regime in your regional office in Kamloops needs a major refresher on what that is in the world of the present. I can assure you it isn’t a concept based on the output of a computer model developed for some Alaska sockeye stock and adapted by people who, if they ever did spend any time on the Thompson River during steelhead season, must have been willfully blind. For many years the anadromous fisheries specialists in your own Ministry, exclusive of Kamloops, have been openly critical of the “management” approach on the Thompson. It is high time the isolationists are brought into line. At the very least you need to abandon the opening day syndrome and the use of bait. The smarter approach is to begin the season with the fishery open, not closed. Monitor the activity through a properly designed creel survey until it becomes clear whether or not there are sufficient fish present to maintain fishing opportunity. If there aren’t, no one will object to closing the fishery. Everyone except a handful of numbers focused bait slingers gets something out of that – the business community far more certainty, the anglers more opportunity, the fish more protection and, not the least, the Ministry a touch of much needed credibility and respect.


R.S. Hooton

Fisheries Biologist, retired.

Lethal Gear

A father teaches his young son to cast a fly on the Thompson River