Thompson River, B.C.

Over the past twenty-five years of wandering, I have sampled close to three dozen steelhead rivers and caught steelhead from most of them. Only one has drawn me back year after year. This river, which is home to sleek "marathoners," is large and the fish have plenty of room to show their mettle when hooked. That river is the mightly Thompson. The Thompson steelhead are superb, large-average-sized, summer-run fish. The leaders of the Thompson River stocks show up in the Spencers Bridge fly fishing area in late September and the bulk of the run arrives in October and November. The fish winter in the mainstream Thompson below Kamloops Lake and in May start into the tributaries for the June spawning.

Fishermen on the South Thompson 1902

Thompson fish respond well to the fly, particularly those on floating lines. When big, strong fish that respond to surface-presented flies are combined with a big river, you have the makings for some spectatular sport. Although the great Thompson steelhead attract anglers from all over the Pacific Northwest, other locations in Canada, the United States and every other part of the world, the river's very size and difficulties of reading the water send many home with tales of failure. Those who have learned the river's secrets and are willing to work hard have memories of a lifetime, especially if they happen to encounter some of the famous Thompson River screamers.

Every Thompson steelhead is a prize but most seasoned pros who have fished the Thompson for a number of years would probably agree that about 25 percent of the fish hooked have a little extra that puts them in a class of their own. These are heart-stoppers. With the heart-stoppers, one moment you are swimming your fly through a lie; the next you have been stricken by a bolt of lightening. All your fly line and 100 yards - plus (91 metres - plus) of backing have been taken and you are scurrying out of the water to follow the torpedo downstream.

The River and the Steelhead Season

Simon Frazer, the famous Northwest Company explorer, named the Thompson after the company topographer and explorer David Thompson in 1808. While Frazer was following the river bearing his name to its mouth, Thompson was only a few hundred miles away exploring the upper waters of the Columbia River, which he mapped to the Pacific. Although Thompson walked and canoed 55,000 miles (88,500 kilometres) from the Atlantic to the Pacific, mapping the country, he never set sight on the river bearing his name.

With its 21,000-square-mile (54,500-square-kilometre) drainage basin, the Thompson River is a major tributary of the mighty Fraser River, which empties into the sea at Vancouver, British Columbia. The Thompson River is home to many salmonids: Chinooks, coho, pinks, sockeye, resident rainbow trout and the rainbow's seagoing brethren, the steelhead. The most famous of the Thompson River's salmon runs is the Adams River sockeye run. On a cycle year, the seven-mile-long (11-kilometre-long) Adams River can have upwards of three million sockeye spawning in its short, seven-mile length. It is a sight to behold and in mid-October, it is worth a day's side trip from steelheading to view this sample of nature's abundance. Although some sockeye appear every year, the peak cycle year occurs every fourth year - in 1990, 1994, 1998 and so on.

Anglers fishing the Y Pool

The Thompson is a big river and can appear ominous to those newcomers journeying to fish it. The river's flow can vary from a high of around 100,000 cubic feet per second (300 cubic metres per second) with a river-gauge reading of 7 metres (23 feet) at the peak of the freshet in spring, to flow of less than 5,000 subic feet per second (150 cubic metres per second) with a river-gauge of less than 1 metre (3 feet), during the low flows of late autumn and winter. The maximum flow from the spring runoff usually occurs in June and then the river's flow drops, often continually, until February or March. It is the lower flows of late September through the regulated end of the fishing season on December 31 that are of interest to steelhead fly fishermen.

About 160 miles (257 kilometres) up the Fraser from Vancouver, the Thompson joins the Fraser at Lytton. Twenty-three miles (37 kilometres) up the Thompson from Lytton is the old Cariboo Wagon Road town of Spencers Bridge. This area, in and around the town and upstream and downstream, has the better fly fishing runs. For visiting fishermen, Spencers Bridge, with its motels and auto courts, has ample accommodations. However, it can get crowded during the peak of the season - from the last two weeks of October through November - and visiting anglers planning a trip should make reservations. For the recreation vehicle driver or camper, there are numerous roadside camping areas.

The steelhead migrate through the Fraser in late August, September, October and early November. The run's forerunners - those that manage to escape the commercial nets, bar fishery, native food fishery and poaching - show up around Spencers Bridge in late September or early October, depending on water conditions. I live in Vancouver, not far from the mouth of the Fraser River. It is an 185-mile (300-kilometre) drive to Spencer's Bridge. My route follows the river's course to the sea but in reverse. I travel up the Fraser Valley to Hope; then up the Fraser Canyon, past Boston Bar and Hell's Gate to Lytton; and from Lytton up the Thompson past Shaw Springs to Spencers Bridge. My journey is comparable in distance to that swum by the steelhead. But, mine takes a matter of hours; the fish's, many days. For a MAP of the Thompson River, click here.

The Thompson River Valley with a dusting of snow

The Thompson River offers a skilled fly fisherman many challenges: big water, difficult-to-find fish, some horrendous wading, and, at times, trying fishing conditions. But the rewards can be worth it because the Thompson River is home to world-class, catch-and-release steelhead that respond well to a properly presented fly through the October to December-end fishing season.

For hundreds of years humans have shown a fascination for fish and, in particular, game fish in rivers. One such fish, the steelhead, is a mysterious fish that appears from the sea strong, sleek and silver to ascend our rivers at varying times of the year on its spawning run. It is also a fish of great beauty and like many other objects of beauty that attract human beings, even if very briefly, it is something to be possessed. Furthermore, to the fly fisherman, the steelhead is a challenging fish to catch. Because of these attributes - mystery, strength, beauty, being a challenge to catch - the steelhead is a highly regarded game fish. some who have a lasting love affair with the steelhead believe it is equal to what many consider the king of game fish - the Atlantic salmon.

The bulk of the Thompson stock consists of five-year-olds, averaging 15 pounds (7 kilograms) but fish of over 30 pounds (14 kilograms) have been taken. Some fish stories report that 40-pounders (18 kilograms) have been lost. The Thompson fish is unique not just because of its size but because many of the fish tend to be "screamers" or "heart-stoppers." They take the fly violently and before you know it, there is a 15-pound (7-kilogram) steelhead cartwheeling around the river with 100 yards (91 metres) of line out. What a thrill!

Ehor Boyanowsky with 27 pound fly-caught steelhead

Methods of Presentation

There are five methods of presenting flies to steelhead: floating-line, skated - or waked-fly, sunk-line, dry fly and upstream sunk-fly presentation. A successful fisherman knows them all and is adept at recognizing conditions that require the fly to be presented a certain way. Only three methods - floating-line, sunk-line and skated or waked-fly - are widely used Thompson River presentations. The other two methods require precise work and although they do work elsewhere, the conditions that are a necessity - knowing fish are in a certain spot, in water that can be fished from below and fish that are within a suitable presentation range, say 30 or so feet (9 or so metres) - are not too often encountered on the Thompson River. Fly fishers are best off concentrating on presentation methods that suit the coverage of large bobies of water. The two most productive are the floating-line and sunk-line methods.


Through October to about November 15 in all depths to about 6 feet (2 metres) maximum. The water temperature is usually in the mid to high 50s (13 to 15 C) at the beginning of October, in the low 50s (10 to 12 C) at the end and about 45 F (7 c) in mid-November. From mid-November in water that is wadeable to a maximum of 4 feet (1.2 metres) and that is not to streamy. Fish are slow to react in cooler waters and are reluctant to move far for the fly.

At any time if the water is greater than 6 feet (2 metres) deep and/or in locations that you know are good holding spots. In cooler water temperatures, usually found from mid-November onwards and in water that is greater than 3 feet (1 metre) deep.

Fly Patterns

I have sampled about three dozen British Columbian steelhead streams and the Thompson, a river that presents many difficulties to steelhead fly fishermen, is no different from most other rivers; it is just a hell of a lot bigger. To achive consistent results, steelhead fly fishers should take the following factors into consideration when choosing their fur and feather enticements:

  • Light conditions - whether it is sunny, cloudy or the water is shaded.

  • Water conditions - temperature, clearness, velocity and surface turbulence.

  • Time of day - early morning, mid-day, evening.

  • State of the fish - fresh-run or present in the river for some time.

When fishing conditions deteriorate - and they do daily - the skillful, knowledgeable fly fisher shines over those average-skilled ones. By marrying fly fishing method to conditions and fly selection, [For the FLIES for the Thompson River, click here.] a competent fly fisherman can often catch fish even under the most trying conditions. The most trying conditions that I can think of are mid-afternoon on a glassy run, baked in sunshine - typical Thompson river mid-day fishing conditions.

A selection of Spratleys To avoid wasting time trying different types of flies, concentrate more on matching technique with conditions and keep fly choices to a minimum. There are diver patterns from which to choose: just look at any steelhead fly fishing book; the selection is almost limitless. Some successful B.C. patterns are the Doc Spratley, both As Specifieds, the Black Spey, the Black General Practitioner and the Eastern Canadian Atlantic Salmon Bomber.

Other fishermen will have their favorite and as long as the fly you choose complements the conditions and presentation method, it will suffice. Patterns originating south of the 49th parallel that do just as well include the Skunk, Purple Peril, Black Woolly Bugger and Grease Liner. Having confidence in a pattern increases your chances of success but to achieve consistent results you may have to abandon favorites in order to match fly patterns to conditions and presentation. Many anglers think that because the Thompson is a big river with big fish a big fly is necessary. This is false. I have caught steelhead on flies up to 5/0 and these big flies are useful to match certain conditions. Because of the desert setting and the light conditons that go with almost constant sunshine, however, to marry those conditions to the warmer water temperatures and the flat-surfaced pools of the Thompson, I rely much on my sparsely dressed flies on size 2 and 4 hooks.

A Head's Up

If you are coming to British Columbia to fish, you should know that British Columbia has a river classification system and guide policy. The Thompson river is in the Class II category and to fish during steelhead season requires a special permit for out-of-province fishers. Professional guiding is not permitted on the Thompson from Savona to Lytton and there are no fly fishing shops. If you visit the Thompson you are on your own and should come prepared to search out the waters. You should also bring ample fishing equipment - rod, fly lines, waders, wading staff and cleats (for treacherous, difficult wading) and a camera to catch that once-in-a-lifetime fish on film.

Thompson River

For information on Thompson River fishing regulations, licensing and fishing write:

Fisheries Branch
Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks
Southern Interior Region
1259 Dalhousie Drive
Kamloops, British Columbia
V2C 5Z5 Canada

A closing thought for those planning to challenge the Thompson river: the Thompson . . . is a tough river and each fly-caught fish is an achievement. Some years ago an old gear-slinging acquaintance of mine questioned me about fly fishing for steelhead. He just couldn't see the magic I found in it. At the time, I was stumped for an answer. On reflection, however, I should have told him, "The steelhead we should prize the most are those that we have worked the hardest for." That is what each Thompson fly-caught fish is: A prize won from much hard work. ~ Arthur J. Lingren

For a MAP of the Thompson River, click here.
For the FLIES for Thompson, click here.
To ORDER Thompson River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Thompson River part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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