Article by Diane Kelly-Riley
“I want to see if we can fish all three forks of the Boise River,” Conrad told us. Two days before, he had picked up his new to him yellow Toyota FJ Cruiser. Fall 2019 had been splendid in Idaho—we avoided the summer wildfires and smoke that had plagued the northwest in previous years and the snow had not yet started to fall.
I was visiting Southern Idaho from my home in Northern Idaho on what’s become an annual tenkara fall fishing trip with my good friends, Conrad Estrem and Ti Macklin. We fished the Owyhee River in Oregon the day before without much luck, so three forks it would be. All three of us have fished tenkara for several years. Conrad is the most experienced of us, but both he and Ti have numerous tenkara rods and they tie their own flies. I have only two tenkara rods and graciously accept any flies that they give me.
The Boise River originates in the rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range of Idaho. The Sawtooth Range has fifty-seven peaks with elevations more than 10,000 feet. According to the US Geological Survey, the Boise River is a tributary of the Snake River system. The North Fork of the Boise River is 50 miles long; the Middle Fork runs about 52 miles in length by the remote town of Atlanta, Idaho and joins the North Fork to form the Boise River south of Idaho City. The South Fork is 101 miles long beginning in the Smoky Mountains and Soldier Mountains of the Sawtooth National Forest. It joins the other forks as an arm of Arrowrock Reservoir. The area has a mining history with several remaining remote towns like Atlanta and Rocky Bar.
North Fork: Home of the Clown Car of Fishing Holes
We started out early from Boise driving up Highway 20 along Mores Creek through Idaho City over Mores Summit to a place below the North Fork Trail where Conrad fished often. He had caught so many fish there that he bought a counter to keep track. Ti and I laughed. Neither of us had ever caught so many fish that we couldn’t keep track. But the spot Conrad took us to did require a counter—between the three of us, we caught 77 rainbows over the course of about an hour or so! Conrad caught 37 and Ti and I split the other 40.
It was a great place to work on tenkara techniques—Ti fished with her aptly named Sawtooth rod from the Tenkara Rod Company; I fished with my Tenkara USA Sato; and Conrad used his Oni Honryu 395. We used an assortment of flies—mostly soft hackle kebari that Conrad had made. I even used flies made by Toshirou Todoroki, a Japanese tenkara angler and fly maker, who my college-aged son met while on a semester study away in Japan. Everything that we threw at the fish worked like a charm! The fishing hole was a clown car like no other! Every time we cast a fly; a fish struck!
Middle Fork: On to Atlanta
We left our sweet fishing hole and headed to the Middle Fork of the Boise River. Conrad, Ti and I found a beautiful spot along the river to fish and we continued to use soft hackle kebari and tried emergers and nymphs. Ti landed a sizable whitefish on the Middle Fork and that was our only catch on this section of the river. While we were fishing, John, the mail carrier, (who also drove a yellow FJ Cruiser) stopped to check out Conrad’s new rig. We originally planned on backtracking to get to the south fork, but John encouraged us to go to Atlanta, Idaho and take the James Creek road over the pass to Featherville.
Atlanta is at the end of the road; it’s a former mining town originally founded by confederate sympathizers during the Civil War who thought confederates had won the war. Today, the town is a gateway to the Sawtooth mountains and is home to a vibrant artist community. For more information, see Idaho Public Television’s Outdoor Idaho segment on Where the Road Ends. We drove on to the town of Atlanta for burgers and then headed over the mountains and were rewarded with stunning views of the Sawtooth Mountains.
South Fork: New Fish Landed with Tenkara
In the afternoon, we headed to the South Fork of the Boise River near Baumgartner Campground. On the way, we saw remnants of other mining towns like Rocky Bar, Idaho, current population 8. Once in the river, we noticed Kokanee in the water, freshwater salmon related to sockeye salmon. Kokanee never migrate to the ocean, but like other salmon, they spawn and then die. Their red bodies were visible in the clear water of the South Fork. Conrad and I used streamers to entice the fish. Conrad had switched over to his DRAGONTail Nirvana rod and landed one! The kokanee’s body was battered as it was near the end of its life; its teeth still sharp (even though it was missing a few).
A bit later Conrad hooked into an even larger fish than the kokanee. His rod bent into a tenkara power curve and he landed a bull trout. Bull trout are threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act. The one Conrad landed was vigorous and healthy. Catching these two species would have been eventful on regular western rods, but they were even more exciting to land with tenkara rods.
The sun began to set, and we headed back to Boise through Mountain Home, Idaho. It is indeed possible to fish all three forks of the Boise River in one day. Each fork of the river had its own feel and provided a unique experience. We were rewarded with beautiful scenery, camaraderie, and one of the best days of fishing in 2019!
Diane Kelly-Riley lives and fishes in northern Idaho.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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