As I have covered in the blog before, I am a lover of “secret streams” – remote rivers far off the beaten path that offer a unique fly fishing experience. Accordingly, one of the first questions I always my fishing guide is “tell me about a river I have never heard of that I really need to fish”.
A few years ago I asked my guide on The Blackwater in Montana that question, and he answered “you really need to go to The Owyhee – little river – big, big browns”, he smiled. I was suprised, because I thought I was familiar with all the great rivers in the West and Northwest, but I had never heard of this one. To make matters more complicated, later when I tried to track down the river I couldn’t quite remember the name, and I had absolutely no idea how to spell it. (It is pronounced Oh-waa-hee).
Luckily two years ago my good friend and fellow Hemingway’s Fishing Team Member Martin Goebel told me he had fished the river the year before, and he invited me to join him on his next trip to The Owyhee. We flew from Portland to Boise (the nearest airport to The Owyhee), where we met our friend, famed fly tyer / fisherman Ken Burkholder for the hour and a half drive from Boise over the Oregon border, into the desert canyon that houses the unique river. For the next two days we had the best fishing I have ever experienced for very big brown trout, catching thirty plus fish a day on both dry flies and egg patterns, with most of the fish averaging twenty inches or larger. A few weeks ago we returned to The Owyhee to see if we could repeat the experience.
The Owyhee reminds me a lot of a minature version of another Oregon stream, The Deschutes, as it winds it’s way through a barren desert canyon. It is surrounded by BLM land and large farms and ranches, and the big bug hatches that accompany this kind of land (which leads to very big trout). Although Ken assured me that the river gets large in the spring (there are outfitters that offer multiple day float trips), in October it is easily wadeable and can be crossed in most places.
The river is clear, and the fish are so big it becomes a site fishing adventure. We drove down the dirt roads that trail the river, stopping to walk up and down half mile stretches and inspect the river and look for browns.
Since it is a canyon river, in most places you are a hundred to several hundred feet above the river, and the trick is to just slowly trail the stream and look for feeding trout. Even from 300 feet away a twenty two inch trout chomping on bugs is fairly easy to see. For the first couple hours in the morning the fish are so picky and the hatches are so sporadic it is difficult to take them on top of the water, but Ken has perfected one of the most unusual and effective bead fishing rigs I have ever seen. We used stiff 6 weight rods with heavier tippet for the big fish. We would find shallow gravel bars, cast into the rapids, and it wasn’t unusual to catch four or five fish within a few minutes.By noon the bug activity began, with big hatches of tiny blue wing olives, and for some reason pale morning duns. This signalled my favorite kind of fishing - ”the hunt” – where you might spend an hour stalking one fish. We switched to 4 weight rods with very fine 6 weight flouro tippet and tiny flies, and we would walk up and down the road until we saw the big feeding browns. Getting to the river from the road can sometimes be challenging as you have to scale steep embankments and bushwack your way through thick willows – and since this terrain looked suspiciously snakey (and I have an almost pathological aversion to rattlers) I always had an eye on the ground looking for movement.
The big fish feeding on top are very, very spooky, and you frequently make the climb, only to get off one cast before the disappear. But the real fun was finding a 1/4 mile stretch that might hold four to six feeding fish, and with patience you might land one or two. Catching fish this size with a tiny fly on top with minuscule tippet is a great adventure, and half the time the big browns would rise and just break the line.
When we fished the stream two years ago we practically had the entire river to ourselves, and only ran into a couple other fishermen. This year we fished on a Monday and Tuesday. Monday was magnificent, again only running into a couple other locals, but on Tuesday it became clear that The Owyhee was only a secret to me! The river was crowded, and it was sometimes difficult to find access that wasn’t already being fished. Still, even with the crowds we had a magnificent day with plenty of fish.
As noted, Boise is the easiest pathway to the river. It is isolated, and there are no hotels nearby, so we stay in Boise and make the drive each day. There are available campsites, which looked to be a very good option, as the fishing was particularly good around sunset. According to Google, there are several guide services that know the river, including the following. I can’t vouch for them since I have not fished with them, but I can recommend the river!