The Boise River In Town A Perspective

I still vividly remember my first experience with fly fishing the Boise River. We had moved to the Treasure Valley in June of 1986 and it wasn’t long before my dad was scoping out some local adventures for he and his boys to enjoy. Not even being settled in a few weeks, my dad decides we are going to float the Boise. I think back on it now and I am sure he didn’t even ask anyone what section to float before making his decision. Why Star bridge to Lansing Lane, I can only guess. Then again, Frank was a real adventurer.
The day for the float was a typical July Idaho afternoon, hot and dry. We had dropped the second car off at the take out and made our way to Star bridge to put the raft and tubes in. My dad, armed with the fly rods and gear was with my mom in the raft, my brothers and I in tubes. The plan was, we were going to float and fish our way down to Lansing Lane and pull out at about dark. So, something to keep in mind, this section of the river has never really been maintained, still isn’t. It is full of “sweepers”, stumps, diversions etc. Of course, to us, that meant good fish habitat, we weren’t really worried about safety. Like I said, Frank liked adventure. As we made our way down river, it didn’t take long to start catching fish. It was mostly a warmwater game with smallmouth, which was surprising to us, with a few trout and whities in the mix. As the sun started to go down, I could tell my mom was anxious. Frank was keeping his cool, like we would see the take out around the next corner. We didn’t….. Eventually, darkness was on us and we still didn’t know how much further. Now I do not remember exactly how it happened, but right before the sun faded, the raft popped. We ended up trudging through the river in the dark, eventually making it to the truck after midnight, we were exhausted. While I think everyone else was somewhat angry with Frank over the incident that night, I was not, I had a blast. Then again, I was 12 at the time and this is what 12 year olds do, have adventures, right?
For some people, this experience would have scared them away from the river but not for me. I spent the next 2 years riding my bike 3 miles down Middleton road to the river trying to catch anything that swam in it. I had good days and bad days, but like I said, it is mostly a warm water game by Middleton, but I was a kid and smallmouth, suckers and the occasional trout put up a hell of a fight on my fly rod. Eventually, I got my driver’s license at age 14 (this whole concept of 14 year olds having licenses scares me to this day!) and was able to move around the valley and fish where I wanted, well usually at least. There was a curfew for under 16 drivers, you had to be parked by dark. Luckily for me, when I got stopped coming off the river or a pond by Fish and Game which happened a few times, they said nothing. Anyway, once I had wheels, I started fishing all over the area including the Boise River from Lucky Peak downstream.
Now usually when people say that things are changing, or a river has changed etc, they usually mean for the worse. I do not believe that to be the case with this river. In fact, I would argue that the Boise River in town fishes better today than it has for a very long time. I am not just talking about the quantity of fishing opportunities, but the quality as well. To me, the Boise River offers two types of fishing experiences, wild fish and “stockers”.
So here is the deal about “stockers” in the Boise River. First of all, we have to recognize how special it is to have a cold water fishery running right through the capital city of Idaho, which is quickly becoming a major metro area. There are only a few places in the west that have 20 inch fish living within a 5 minute walk from main street, Boise being one of them. And while some of the fishing is indeed “urban”, with a little walk down the greenbelt, you can lose the crowds and the noise of traffic and enter a world with wild trout. But let’s talk about the “stockers” first.
So, as many of you know, “stockers” can be frowned upon by fly fishermen and women at times. Idaho Fish and Game does dump a ton of trout in the river every year and has done so for years. We usually just call them “stockers” but some folks have other names for them that are not as nice. The good news is, they are “triploids”, which means they are sterile and cannot reproduce. Doesn’t mean they don’t try, just means they can’t actually do the act. Therefore, the wild fish are relatively safe from breeding with them. These fish, while having a purpose by giving fishing opportunities to a grandpa and his little ones to take some trout home to eat, are not where the river has thrived. I am not saying “stockers” are bad, they are a reality and in many ways, protect the wild breeding fish in the river by acting as a buffer, or fodder if you would like. Besides, they can save your day from a skunking, so they have their place. However, when it comes to the wild fish that inhabit the river, that is a whole different story.
The original trout of the Boise river was and still is to a certain extent, the Columbia Basin Redband Trout. Now this trout, which gets mistaken for a “cuttbow” at times because of faint orange on the jawline, is one tough survivor. This fish is adapted to our desert environment. They can handle higher alkalinity and warmer water temps than their coastal cousins (for more information about different types of redband trout, see Dr. Robert Benhke’s work). In other words, they are made to thrive here. With that said, man, whether right or wrong, has changed their environment extensively in the West with dams, weirs, culverts, roads, channelization and loss of water quality and riparian habitat. Yet these fish hold on in pockets, even in the Boise River system. Now, I am not going to lie, I love redband trout more than any other trout, they are my passion. Yet, I am not going to argue with a 20 inch rainbow out of the Boise if it has redband genetics or not, a 20 inch rainbow is a 20 ich rainbow, right? The reality is, catching a high number of larger rainbows say over 18 inches was not always the case in this river. I don’t believe there was one “Silver Bullet” that made fly fishing for quality trout in the city of Boise possible. I think what people began to understand 30 years ago was that the river needed better water quality, more riparian habitat and more recently, better spawning habitat. Through land and water management practices, much of the spawning gravel areas were lost. But through a concerted effort by many partners (too many to list here) over time, the river has grown into a diverse ecosystem that provides for wild trout in an urban environment. This wasn’t done by magic, it took community involvement and management. It took volunteers thousands of hours, planting trees, stopping erosion and augmenting the river to make it successful and give the trout a chance. But rebands aren’t the only salmonids that inhabit the river and not the only native either. Enter the whitefish.
Now for some fishermen and women, mountain whitefish are an annoyance, or even a curse. I don’t see them that way at all. In the big picture, whitefish, also known as “cheekers”, are like a “canary in a coal mine”. What that means is that they are an indicator species. If whitefish are doing well in a system then the trout are probably doing okay as well. I know that some fishermen in the past believed that whitefish were competitors to trout but the science just doesn’t show that. These species have coexisted for thousands and thousands of years, long before any fishermen thought of tying some hair on a hook. Now I don’t usually catch a lot of whities anymore. I will sometimes pick one up if I let my flies drift to the water where the whities are holding, but it isn’t often. It doesn’t annoy me when I catch them, these fish can put up a tug, and that’s pretty good in my book. Besides, like “stockers”, whiteies can save the day from getting skunked and they are a game fish.
The final samlmoind in the Boise River in town is a newcomer of sorts, and that is the brown trout. Now brown trout are not natives to the Boise River, hell, they aren’t even natives to the Americas. I have never bothered to go back and look when they were first dumped into the Boise river but I know it was before 1986. Whatever the case, they are in there now and most are wild as hell…..the genie is out of the bottle so to speak. Have they been detrimental to the river? I do not believe so. They seem to have come from strong brown trout stock, get rather large and are apex predators like a brown should be. As one of my friends described them to me recently, they are like the school yard bullies of the river. In many ways, I think he is right. Regardless, these fish are here to stay and offer a very different experience when fishing the Boise. While they inhabit the river from Barber Dam down to at least Star, some of my best days were trying to trick big wylie browns below Garden City. I don’t fish a ton down there anymore, but every once in a while, I still feel the need to go chase those big buttery browns.
When it comes to this blue ribbon that cuts across the Treasure Valley that we call the Boise, I am optimistic for it’s future. Even through droughts, “ snowmaggedons”, man channelizing the river bed and trying to suck up or divert every available drop, the river has endured as have the fish. But this was no accident as I have said. It took partnerships and good stewardship to make the river what it is today. In fact, the river has changed so much that even the old timers who had written the Boise River off years ago are starting to dabble on it because of the change in quality of the fish. It doesn’t have the hatches of the South Fork of the Boise or the Owyhee have, and that is okay. The Boise river is it’s own animal, it has it’s own secrets and idiosyncrasies, just like all rivers do. To try to compare the Boise river to other rivers in our area is ridiculous in my opinion. We need to love this river, and the fish that inhabit it, for what it is. Could it better? Of course! Could it be worse? Absolutely, we have seen when people disregarded the health of the river and dumped their trash in it. What I am saying is that we have a gem on our hands. Let’s embrace it, lets make the river better for future people and fish. This is such a special fishery and in my opinion, is already great. However, with a little work, it can be fantastic.
I will leave you with this little nugget that illustrates the uniqueness of the Boise River. I work in downtown Boise Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm in an office. In the summer and early fall, it is very common for me to wake up a little earlier than usual and hit the river downtown at first light or even before in the dark. Where else can you commute into the city, stick a couple of nice fish and be at your desk by 8am? Not many places does this happen folks, not many places. In many ways we are lucky, maybe even spoiled, but this also took work to accomplish and still does. We must be diligent in our task to make a better river for all of us and the fish as well. If we do this right folks, this river could be a shining light for others to emulate. All I know is that this river suits me well and that is why I’m a Boise fly fishing guide. Fish on…….Matt

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