Big Fish in a Little River

Fishing is not a spot and stalk sport for me most times. Generally I fish by tossing a line into the deep and hoping for the best. But steelheading on the Boise River, right in downtown Boise Idaho, has become a different story all together.

I would come, during my lunch break, to an access dock right on the river at Barbar Park with no expectations of actually catching any steelhead. I would make the five minute walk to the dock and watch white headed steelhead was swimming slowly in the shallows next to the dock, she was big and she was ugly. The fish was suffering from what is called Ulcerative Dermal Necrosis, basically ulcers on her head from being beaten up in the shallow river for so long. It is a common occurrence during the spawning season. As soon as I walked close to the edge I would watch her swim into the current and disappear, sometimes other smaller steelheads would swim off as well.

I would then cast and cast at the riffle and the pool above it, hoping to get a strike from a silver slime rocket. Most days I was disappointed and simply cast for practice, but not on Friday November 30th.  I snuck out with my ultra-light trout rod with 6 pound test and a copper “Big Deal” lure. I crept out on the dock and could see my ugly headed foe. She saw me and bolted, but only to the edge of the current. I could see her ulcered head in the current and cast about six feet in front of it. I slowly reeled in, right to her face, with her one good eye she struck my lure. I felt a bump but no run; but I could see my lure in her mouth. I did the only logical thing and set the hook as hard as I possibly could. Oh, how I wished I had brought a bigger fishing pole.

With my rod bent in half and no net I realized the problem that I would have. I was about four feet above the water and could not possibly land the fish I never thought I would catch anyway. I had to jump off the landing and into the rocks beside it, never mind that I was in slacks and chefs clogs.

The hum of my drag was nearly constant as I fought the big gal. I would reel her close to the bank and as soon as she spotted me she would bolt (she really did only have one good eye). I just let the fight play out for close to twenty minutes. She would run and I would retrieve her. When I decided to make my move I got her as close to the bank as I could and thrust my hand into the water, grabbing her tail and pulling her out of the water. With a primal grunt I tossed her to the bank.

I hooted and hollered and danced a little bit on the bank looking at my 30 inch nine pound slime rocket. My endorphin rush lasted long enough for me to ignore the other feeling I was having, Hunger.


While it might seem like blind luck that caught me my fish I was actually approaching the river with a little bit of expertise behind me.

Us litter river fishermen all want to be on the big rivers, the Columbia, the Snake, the Clearwater catching some lunkers. But, alas, we are not. Stuck in the Boise valley we hope and pray to land a big fish. Fortunately, Idaho Fish and Game stocks the Boise River each year with hatchery born steelhead from the Oxbow Dam. The steelhead run up to the hatchery and are loaded onto a truck and hauled to Boise. Fishermen can actually catch steelhead while ESPN broadcasts from the Smurf Turf at the Boise State Stadium (Go Broncos!).

Each year this fish dump creates a little micro climate for fishermen. Hundreds of people culminate across the four drop locations trying to land a steelhead while not driving four hours and spending hundreds of dollars.

With the small water of the Boise River tactics change a little. In stead of jigging for fish at 6 feet you jig for them at about 2 feet. Diver style plugs are out of the question. The best bet for landing an “in town” steelhead is what local fishermen Kelly Chatterton calls a BSA standing for “Big, Silver and Annoying”.

Spinners and spoons tend to dominate the fishing action in the Boise River. Specifically the Blue Fox Super Vibrax in the silver color. “Basically, it is the job of the fisherman to knock the big boys on the head with a lure and make them strike it…the strike is out of anger, not hunger” added Chatterton. Others use bait right after the fish are dumped, to limited success.

With the low levels of the water sight fishing is not uncommon. Most time the fish can be seen at the edges of holes during mid day. Not spooking the fish is the vital aspect of sight fishing on the Boise. Cast above the fish and try and get the lure as close as possible to the head of the fish hopefully inducing a strike.

In general fishing is best right after the fish are deposited. They tend to be confused and have not settled into the river, that and there are a lot more fish per mile of water. Fortunately IDF&G publish, on their website, the fish drop locations and dates. The 2012 season was cut short due to a lower than expected return to the Oxbow Dam. Roughly 1000 fish were released for us City Fishers.

How to get more meat off a Steelhead

Protein recovery becomes an issue when a person gets a big fish to shore. We all want to be as respectful as possible of the life that we have taken but many of us lack the skills to harvest all the meat in the proper way. No worries, I have a little trick that will make you feel good about your fillets event if they are not perfect.

When the fish is done being filleted most people will simple toss the bodies and be done. But many times a large amount of meat, often as much as a pound, is left on the skeleton. A simple tablespoon removes all the excess meat. Simply scrape down the side of the fishes exposed sections removing the flesh. Scrape the backbone clean of most of the meat. It is all perfectly edible but often overlooked. Pile this meat up and reserve for fish taco night, for sandwiches or pasta. No need to crumble up the perfect fillets when you have crumbled meat already.

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