Boise consistently gets high praise for having a premium quality of life and a rich blend of outdoor opportunities close to home. If you like to fish for fresh trout – especially fly fishing – you can do so year-round on the Boise River right in the middle of town. If you’re a good angler, with patience, you can catch fish.
The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau and Mayor David Bieter frequently talk about the high-quality rainbow trout and brown trout fishery in the urban section of the Boise River when they’re courting new businesses or extolling the virtues of Boise’s quality of life.
And so it should be no surprise that Fly Fishers International is hosting its International Fly Fishing Fair and Fishfest Aug. 7-11 at the Boise Centre. Participants will be just steps away from the Boise River, making it easy to dip a line between meetings, before breakfast or in the evening.
Tom Logan, chairman of Fly Fishers International, said Boise was a logical choice for the meeting, which is expected to draw more than 1,000 attendees.
“Our mission is to preserve fly fishing opportunities around the world through conservation work and education,” Logan said. “We made the choice to come to Boise because of two things — the opportunity that’s there for fly fishing on the Boise River and other streams close by, and the hospitality of the Boise Centre welcoming us.”
“We are looking forward to hosting the Fly Fishers International group,” said Carrie Westergard, executive director of the BCVB. “This will bring international recognition of the world-class fly fishing available right here in our very own backyard. This is a very influential group, and we look forward to showing off our vibrant city and surrounding area to them.”
Longtime Boise residents know that the quality fishery in Boise did not happen by accident – it took several decades to clean up the Boise River after years of neglect, starting in the early 1960s with water-quality initiatives and later securing crucial winter-time flows for trout and fry survival. The Dixie Drain initiative to reduce phosphorous levels in the Boise River from the wastewater treatment plant and from irrigation diversions in the Parma area has received high praise.
It is a great conservation story that the Boise River runs gin-clear through the urban zone of the city with a solid fish population because of multiple groups working together to make it that way. The water stays plenty cold for trout because it comes off the bottom of Lucky Peak Reservoir, which stores water for irrigation users downstream in the Treasure Valley.
“Once the second-most-polluted river in Idaho, the Boise River is now one of the most popular and valuable natural assets in Southwest Idaho,” said Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. “During a three-month period in the summer, more than 100,000 people float on a river where once the water was polluted with slaughterhouse refuse. And thousands more enjoy the fishing, biking, bird-watching and other recreational opportunities the river provides.”
“It is a great urban fishery,” adds Chris Gerono, a fishing guide for Idaho Angler, one of the co-sponsors for the FFI meeting. “For the streams we have out West, it’s not a blue-ribbon trout stream, but back East, it probably would be. We’ve got a great urban river – a real urban gem. To be able to walk down or ride your bike to the river and go fly fishing in the middle of our great city is a pretty rare thing.”
Of course you have to dodge the thousands of river floaters on a hot summer day, but the anglers typically get out early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the crowds.
“There’s not many rivers like the Boise River around the country where you can go fishing on your lunch break or after work,” added Tim Mansell, general manager of Idaho Angler.
Idaho Angler typically takes fly fishing guests on the river early in the morning to avoid the crowds of floaters. “By the time the floaters are putting on the river, we’re finishing up our morning of fishing,” Mansell said.
I personally like to fly fish with dry flies because I love to watch fish rise up to take a fly on the surface. But on the Boise River, it’s quite challenging to catch rainbows on a dry fly. The fish typically stay below the surface in deeper pools and below riffles and you have to fish below the surface to catch them with nymphs and streamers.
“It’s actually pretty tough to catch them,” Mansell said.
The bigger brown trout are even harder to catch. The density of browns is higher between Glenwood Bridge and Star than it is between Diversion Dam and Ann Morrison Park, according to Idaho Fish and Game.
John Cassinelli, regional fisheries biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, said the challenge of catching rainbows and browns in the Boise River seems to be preserving the fish populations just fine. Recent surveys show that the wild rainbow fishery has an average of 6-7 fish per hundred square meters. For browns, it’s one fish per hundred square meters in the urban zone.
“The data is showing that from the early 2000s to 2010, the fish population was increasing,” Cassinelli said. “Since 2010, the population is holding steady.”
Gerono and Mansell would like to see more trophy fish regulations set up in the urban section of the Boise River, providing for catch-and-release fishing and slot limits to grow bigger fish. “It’d be nice to have a 4- or 5-mile section of the river with catch-and-release regulations,” Gerono said. “If you’ve got 10 bait fishermen hitting a productive hole, they can clean out that portion of the river pretty quick.”
Fish density surveys show that wild rainbows aren’t getting caught and harvested to the point where those kinds of regulations would be necessary, Cassinelli said. “We’ve found the exploitation rates for wild rainbows is 30 percent, and the total catch overall is 6 percent. We still have really low harvest rates throughout the river system,” he said. “It’s still a pretty under-utilized trout fishery.”
For brown trout, the catch rates are in the 16 percent range, Cassinelli said.
Idaho Fish and Game stocks the Boise River on a regular basis for anglers using spinners and bait, and they observe much higher catch rates for the stockers – 60-70 percent in the popular fishing spots such as Glenwood Bridge, Barber Park, and near Boise State and ParkCenter.
From a fish habitat perspective, the few tributary streams that feed into the urban Boise River system are crucial for trout spawning – streams such as Loggers Creek and Heron Creek, Cassinelli said. A section of Cottonwood Creek that’s been buried in a pipe beneath the city between Military Reserve Park and the Boise River for decades is planned to be daylighted in Julia Davis Park in the future. The project is supported by Trout Unlimited, the city of Boise and the Boise River Enhancement Network. The project has more than $300,000 in funding, and it will daylight about 440 feet of Cottonwood Creek, opening up new fish spawning habitat.
FFI participants will not only fish the Boise River, they’ll also take trips to fish the Owyhee River below the dam and the South Fork Boise River.
Steve Stuebner is a contributor to the Statesman outdoors. See his weekly blog at http://stuebysoutdoorjournal.blogspot.com.
International Fly Fishing Fair and Fishfest
When: Aug. 7-11
Where: Boise Centre
What: Casting and fly-tying demonstrations and workshops, fly fishing seminars and book signings. A complete schedule is available here.
Cost: Day passes are $10 for adults, 11 and younger are free. More information here.