We fished hard under clear cold skies in clear cold water for our last three days on the Thompson River. Endless trains slithered up and down the clay coloured canyons. Big horned sheep descended the sage covered hillsides and browsed along the highway. In the bar, at the end of every day, cattle men and truckers outnumbered steelheaders by a bigger and bigger margin as the anglers folded under the pressure exerted by the cold outflow winds and the nagging futility of cast after cast after fruitless cast.
The chill sucked our energy. We crawled into our cold beds exhausted, nodded off to the incessant whistling of the winter wind and slept deeply, Art’s ancient camper pitching like a dory on a sullen sea. Each of the two remaining mornings we awoke with hope, sometimes wrapped up in the form of a fly so far untried, or a spot we hadn’t fished but had given up steelhead to Bob or Art or Bob and Art in seasons past. And, to fuel our tanks, there was also the recollection of our first day on the river, the day when I’d fastened on to a pair of frantic steelhead.
We fished late into the afternoon of our last day without contacting another steelhead. As we drove through the darkening canyon of the Fraser, talking past times and good fishing, it struck me that I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I felt blessed – blessed and privileged to have tapped into the energy of two Thompson River steelhead.
When I was a boy, Wally Cosman tuned my father’s piano. There were no electronic aids in those days. Wally was of the old school. He had perfect pitch. He tuned by ear. Fussing with the strings until they were almost in tune then pounding on them until they were. He would customarily arrive at nine in the morning tune until noon, then finish the job in the afternoon. On a couple of occasions I was home. On the first of these, I offered him coffee, which he gratefully accepted.
You know Glenn Gould? he asked rhetorically.
I know of him, I said.
Don’t think much of him, said Wally. The symphony had this beautiful Steinway, he said. I tuned it. Got it set up and then Gould came and stuck thumb tacks in the felts. Guy is a kook.
The next time my Dad’s out of tune piano provided Wally and I the opportunity to have coffee together, he told me the Glenn Gould story again in more detail, then he asked me if I liked to fish. I told him I did, but added that my exploits, like my technique were meagre. Wally, it turned out, was an avid steelheader, the first of the breed I was to meet. He pulled out a package of Players plain, offered me one. I fetched an ashtray. We lit up. Wally squinted through the smoke as he recalled one of his many trips to the interior, a trip much longer and more difficult than it would be now. He told me of hooking giant powerful fish in deep canyon pools and it was clear the experience of doing so had made a deep impression on him.
Wally fished a casting reel attached to a glass fibre rod. Like most of his contemporaries, he fished bait, worms or salmon roe, under a cork float. It seemed the only sensible way to hunt steelhead on a river as large and wild as the Thompson. He was part of this province’s steelheading tradition, one that continues to this day.
Wally’s epic battles were one of the things I thought about as Art, Bob, I made our way toward Vancouver. Now I could fully appreciate how that magnificent river and its uniquely powerful steelhead could seep into an angler’s soul and beggar his imagination.
When Wally Cosman floated roe through the Thompson’s glides, everyone thought B.C.’s steelhead streams supported far more steelhead than they actually did. The sport fishing regulations were set in accordance with this imaginary abundance. Steelhead punch cards and daily limits were the order of the day.
As a boy, I recall ogling pictures in the tourist magazine Beautiful B.C. and seeing shots of what looked like the Gold Pan Campsite. In one of the shots a proud fisherman stood beside a picnic table, its top covered with magnificent Thompson River steelhead.
As the Fish and Wildlife Branch of the Ministry of the Environment developed better ways of measuring stock abundance, including swimming rivers and counting fish, a more accurate picture of the provincial steelhead stocks developed. The news wasn’t good. Charged with doing the right thing for fish, the Branch imposed strict limits, gear restrictions, catch and release regulations. Each of these measures was met with howls from sport fishers and business owners with some stake in the sport fishing enterprise, many of whom wrongly saw the solution to the problem in the environmentally catastrophic idea of building hatcheries.
Wiser heads prevailed. Catch and release regulations and bait bans for wild steelhead were implemented throughout the province, but, curiously, not on the Thompson.