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Boise River 'Bows & Browns

Boise River 'Bows & Browns

Beat the crowds of inner tubes and rafts to this river in the early morning and you could be surprised at the size of the fish swimming in downtown Boise. (May 2006)

Light hatches of caddis and mayflies shortly after daylight marked the beginning of my fly-fishing trip on the Boise River. But they were no match for the rubber hatch that materialized at about 10 a.m. that day. Inner tubes and small rafts appeared on the river and grew heavier by the minute until they dominated the summer scene.

"That's the way the river gets almost every day of the summer," pointed out Boise flyfisherman John Wolter. "With the BSU (Boise State University) campus right next door -- something like 18,000 students -- the river plays a major role in summertime fun in Boise."

For the angling crowd, fun under the summer sun on the Boise River includes tapping local populations of rainbow and brown trout along the Boise River Greenbelt, the city-owned parkland that stretches along more than 12 miles of the river.

"It's a very viable fishery for being situated in a city," says Wolter, who owns Anglers, one of Boise's premier fly shops. "The Boise not only presents good opportunity to catch a lot of fish, but for the guys who get off the beaten path, the river also offers a lot for anglers who want to catch wild rainbow and brown trout."


The Greenbelt is open to anglers as well as cyclists, hikers, skaters and runners, via 25 miles of paved and graveled paths. Barber Park bounds the Greenbelt at the upstream end. Downstream, its recognized boundary is the Glenwood Road bridge.

Wolter and I began our day wading a long stretch of the river adjacent to Ann Morrison Park at Americana Boulevard. Here, the river bottom is generally flat and open -- with a wide freestone bottom and riprap banks, with just a few small willow trees. It's a good starting place early in the morning, Wolter pointed out. Later in the day, floaters and tubers use the park's flat shoreline as a take-out point just upstream from a diversion dam that ends a two-mile float from the usual put-in point at Barber Park.


The bridge near Ann Morrison Park at Americana Boulevard is also one of several locations where the Idaho Department of Fish and Game stocks thousands of rainbows each month.

Here and there, a rise marked the feeding locations of some of those trout. Wolter quickly armed his leader with a size 18 Light Cahill dry fly. Because distance can be a factor in reaching these fish, an 8 1/2- to 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight fly rod/reel combo is your ideal setup. A rainbow in the 10-inch class rewarded Wolter's fast cast in the vicinity of the rise.

I chose a size 18 Elk Hair Caddis. It drew a few strikes that I missed. Then I set the hook solidly on a trout that jumped twice before I played it to hand. Admiring my 12-inch catch, I discovered orange slash marks under its chin. Wolter suggested the fish was a cuttbow -- a cross between a rainbow and a cutthroat. But its presence here left him a little bewildered.

"For several years now, the stockings the state's been making have been triploid rainbows," he explained. "Those are sterile fish, so crossbreeding is a very rare occurrence."

Brian Malaise, assistant hatchery manager at the IDFG's Nampa Fish Hatchery, said the incidence of crossbreeding between rainbows and cutthroats in the Boise River is nearly impossible. "In fact, the chance of a cuttbow in the Boise River is slim to none. According to our fisheries biologists, the native trout of the Boise River is the rainbow," he said.

Wild rainbows found in the waters of the Boise River Greenbelt sometimes display the red slash marks associated with cutthroats, Malaise explained. Noting the incidence and density of spots on the fish's back and sides helps with on-the-water identification of a potential cuttbow. Rainbows usually carry a pattern of thick spots across their backs and sides, said Malaise, while spots on a cutthroat are usually reserved to the rear portion of the body, and number much fewer than those found on rainbows. This rainbow, and others we caught that day, featured dense spot patterns.

Malaise confirmed that stocking triploid rainbows has been the agency's policy for about eight years. "West Slope cutthroats and redband rainbows are the recognized native trout of Idaho, and the stocking of sterile rainbows is the primary measure taken," he added, "to reduce the incidence of crossbreeding and protect the integrity of our wild trout -- both rainbows and cutthroats."

According to the IDFG Web site, the Boise River Greenbelt is annually stocked with 42,000 "catchable" (8- to 12-inch) rainbow trout. During summer, as many as 4,000 fish may be stocked every other week at such primary access points as Barber Park, the BSU campus, Americana Boulevard and the Sportsman's Access at Glenwood Road. Angling pressure is highest at these locations, where many anglers choose ultralight spinning tackle to toss 1/24- to 1/8-ounce spinners. Rooster Tails, Mepps and Panther Martin make many popular patterns.


As the looming rubber hatch threatened opportunities to try another stretch of the Boise, we loaded into Wolter's SUV and headed upstream to a setting on the Greenbelt that resembles more remote water. Here, within 100 yards of the famous blue turf of BSU's Bronco Stadium, towering trees and lush riverine growth hide the prolific development of the school, homes, apartments, condos and businesses along the river. There we parked and tied nymphs to our leaders for tossing along a couple of deep runs just below the football field. It was near here in the early 1990s, Malaise said, where a brown trout of about 23 pounds was caught.

Wild browns join 1,200 to 2,200 wild rainbows per mile in the Greenbelt's waters, according to the IDFG. Malaise said IDFG biologists recently shocked browns as heavy as 6 pounds. They estimate the Greenbelt section holds 150 to 320 wild browns per mile, with their highest densities occurring in the vicinity of the Shakespeare Festival grounds on Warm Springs Avenue east of town and downstream from the Glenwood Avenue bridge. Wild rainbows are generously distributed throughout the run of the Greenbelt's waters.

Wolter and I watched for signs of feeding trout where the river flowed beneath the Broadway Avenue bridge and threaded itself around a couple of small islands. Here the river cuts deep lanes around shelves of washed stones that create eddies. Beyond Wolter's strike indicator, his 6-foot leader carried a size 16 red Copper John along the gravel and rock of the river bottom. When the current swept the bug off the shelf of stones into deep water, the indicator snapped sideways. Wolter set the hook on a handsome 15-inch rainbow.


When fishing from the East Boise River Footbridge (near Park Center Boulevard), upstream to the posted boundary about a mile downstream from the Eckert Road bridge (Barber Park) where Loggers Creek is diverted from the Boise River, anglers may keep two trout larger than 14 inches. (All smaller fish must be immediately released unharmed.) Wolter and other local anglers promote catch-and-release fishing.

The statewide limit for steelhead is three per day, nine in possession and 20 per season.

For information about trout fishing along the Boise River Greenbelt, contact the IDFG Southwest Region, 3101 S. Powerline Rd., Nampa, ID 83686 or by phone at (208) 465-8465; and John Wolter/Anglers (an Orvis fly shop), 7097 W. Overland Rd., Boise, ID 83709 or telephone (208) 323-6768.

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