While most Boiseans view the river as a great place to float on hot, summer days or a beautiful backdrop to the city for which it's named, few see the fishing opportunities found between office buildings and busy roadways.
A chance discovery of an heirloom Fenwick fly-fishing rod in an attic led to a search to find out more about urban fly-fishing.
A newbie in need of instruction is probably best advised to head for a local fly shop to consult the experts. The River Keeper is nestled between a dry cleaner and a thrift shop on Broadway Avenue—not far from the Greenbelt.
An initial visit can be overwhelming. Little pigeonholes filled with flies line two church-organ-sized display cases. Waders, boots, reels, vests and nets loom on the walls. A blackboard behind the counter describes river flows and insect patterns of southern Idaho's numerous waterways in what seems to be cryptic angler shorthand.
When tackling the tackle problem, the financial commitment becomes apparent.
"We use the term 'second mortgage' a lot in the fly-fishing world," River Keeper owner Tim Burke said cheekily.
His list of essentials for beginners includes: flies, a 9-foot rod, floating line, reel, waders and felt boots.
For flies, Burke suggested nymphs. "This is a great river to learn nymph fishing on," he said. In addition to nymphs—flies meant to drift underwater—he recommended caddis flies in the morning and evening, and even cicadas for those with an adventurous streak.
Burke said the key to nymph fishing is presenting the fly to the fish as if it were a real bug being swept downstream. Practically, this means letting the fly bounce along the bottom until it takes all the slack out of the line and the fly begins to surface. If all goes well, a fish will see the nymph rising and strike.
The River Keeper offers intimidated shoppers an easy out with a collection of niches labeled "Boise R." The store, as well as the numerous other fishing shops in the valley, is also a repository of angler knowledge, and shopkeepers are usually happy to point the direction to a good fishing hole.
The next step is simply getting time on the river.
Burke graciously, if a bit indulgently, pointed toward Barber Park. There are plenty of fishing holes on the Boise River, all within walking or biking distance. Depending on flows, anglers can catch brown trout, rainbow trout and whitefish anywhere along the river between Barber Park and Eagle Island.
Burke suggests the upper end of the river and said that although flows in the summer are high, the fish don't want to fight the current any more than the angler. Both fish and fisherman can comfortably stay close to shore.
Burke has spent the last 15 years in Boise and knows how to fish the urban river as well as anyone. He favors the stretch between Boise State and Barber Park, the exact stretch favored by floaters. To beat the traffic, he suggested early morning and late-evening fishing, which happens to be when the fish are most likely to be feeding.
Gino White, president of the Boise Valley Fly-Fishermen, suggested working the water beneath the bridges, while another angler raved about the shallows downstream from the Glenwood bridge. Of course, there are probably as many ways to fish the Boise as there are fishermen who try.
Although Burke is happy to see folks out utilizing the easy access to the river, he also bemoans the current management.
"Well, if you were coming from Tennessee, this would look like blue ribbon trout water, but for a Montanan, it would be pretty measly," he surmised.
Burke said the river is not a destination for many locals. "Most [of] the anglers on the Boise are either people in town visiting family or on business who want to get some fishing in, or they're folks who just don't have the time to get out to the other rivers," he said.
When an angler like White or Burke finally arches his line across the channel and lets it drift into a feeding area, sometimes the results are a quick bite and a spirited fight with a trout or a shorter contest with a whitefish.
But since the river has been running high, finding the fish can be a challenge. Some wonder if this means not enough fish are able to make it in the river, and Burke notes that the Boise has the potential to be a much more productive fishery for large trout.
He places most of the blame on the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, claiming that the river could be managed more strictly, ideally with catch-and-release regulations.
Fish and Game doesn't agree. Bill Horton manages the trout fisheries for the department, and points out that the section from Parkcenter Bridge to Barber Park is regulated. Anglers are limited to two trout per day, and fish must be longer than 14 inches. He said that in the late 1980s, Fish and Game experimented with more regulations, but there was not enough habitat to sustain more fish.
"Winter flows dictate population viability," Horton said.
Because of irrigation needs, the flow during winter usually averages less than 400 cubic feet per second. On July 7, a typical summer day, the river flow was at 1,380 cfs.
It's this struggle between fisheries and agriculture that limits the size and numbers of fish in the river, Horton said.
Burke remains unconvinced. He points to the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon, which in spite of a flow discrepancy of 250 cfs in summer to 8 cfs in winter, is still a world-class brown trout fishery.
Fish and Game, though, has to balance the recreational needs of 300,000 residents living near the river, as well as the fish. Pleasing those who want to drop their catch in a frying pan and catch-and-release anglers is a ticklish balancing act. To keep the peace, Fish and Game stocks steelhead in the fall and allows abundant fishing in the ponds near the river.
"We stock plenty of fish into the ponds if you want a sure bet, but the river is almost ideal for rainbows," Horton said.
The conditions are thanks to the fact that the urban portion of the river is downstream from the Lucky Peak Dam, creating a tail water fishery. Additionally, river temperatures stay near 59 degrees—preferred by rainbow trout.
According to Fish and Game, a 20-pound brown trout was hauled from the depths just upstream from Friendship Bridge.
Of course, most of fishing isn't just about landing the big catch. Sometimes, it's enough just being on the river in the evening as the sun is setting, burnishing the Foothills to a bronze glow, with the dark quiet murmur of the river interrupted by the cacophonous honks of 20-some Canada geese coming in for a mass landing.
Standing up to the knees in frigid water, no sign of fish and at least one fly ruined, there is still contentment among those who flick flies over the Boise. It is almost unfair to call this hobby "urban" fly-fishing.
A fishing license is required to fish anywhere in Idaho, including the Boise River. A resident license costs $25.75 and can be purchased at most sporting goods stores.