We turned off Interstate 96 before it forked south to Winnemucca. It was early October and the forecast was for a week of fine warm weather across the vast foothills of Oregon’s Owyhee Mountains, perfect for a late-season river fishing trip.
A jeep track ran off across the desert in front of us. Flour dust lay a foot thick in the ruts and our three off-road rigs tossed towering rooster-tails as we headed out across a featureless, sagebrush plateau to a notch in the rim of the Owyhee River Canyon. Riding shotgun in the lead rig, I rolled down my window to fill my nose with the scent of flowering sagebrush and my eyes with a sea of grey green splashed with tiny yellow flowers. We were on the adventure of a lifetime: just us, the river and a slow pace that would leave plenty of time.
Fishing, Hunting and Adventure on Oregon’s Remote Owyhee River
Named after a party of Hawaiian trappers who were lost and presumed murdered in the area in the 1800s, the locals botched the spelling of Hawaii and the phonetic Owyhee was the result. The river is extremely remote, visually spectacular, a great smallie fishery and an arduous, deeply satisfying journey to undertake, even in extreme low fall flows. It’s so adventurous, in fact, the Bureau of Land Management caretaker we spoke with told us no more than a party a year comes through each autumn. We were floating a middle section from north of Rome down to Birch Creek, roughly 35 miles—and we’d take a lazy eight days to do it. Paddle one day, hang in the canyon for a couple; it’s the Owyhee two-step.
It was no problem rounding up six like-minded friends to join the adventure and we always hire a cook for river trips. This time the job fell to Callie Blue Heron North, a spunky bear cub who made three meals a day and sweet music on her ukulele at night.
Besides Callie, I was joined by four other paddlers: Robyn Minkler, an IT wiz and our primary cameraman; Steve Thomsen, veteran river tripper; Steven Wrubleski, artist and farming activist and Moore Huffman a competitive whitewater kayaker up from L.A. Between us, we had years of experience. This wasn’t our first time paddling the high desert rivers draining this corner of the Columbia Basin but most of us were open coast kayakers. Our stomping ground is the lonely B.C. coast where we paddle for weeks or months and live like nouveau Crusoes.
Living Off the Land
With the upland bird hunting season open, to go grocery shopping we simply hiked out of camp with a light shotgun and brought home fresh game for dinner. Just this little taste of living off the land triggered a compelling, atavistic feeling. Evening was best spent on the water, casting topwater to smallies or up in the rimrock following the siren song of a covey of wild partridge.
As the first stars appeared, a cloud of bats flew out of the caves in the palisades. Half the crew was content to remain behind in camp tipping cold beers and tricking out their kayaks. The rest of the team was soaking up at the hot spring. It was time for me to say hello to an old friend.
I waded across the river to a hatch of mayflies that had already caught the attention of the bats. I had along a lithe 2-weight fly rod and a small hopper. I botched the first cast, but on the second attempt my fly was picked up immediately. An athletic bronze-back shot up out of the water, wriggling furiously through a little half-moon arc, then bolted down-river. My rod yanked low to the water and I heard the stuttered click of the reel. “Fish on,” I yelled.
The river is extremely remote and spectacular, a great smallie fishery.
When I finally had the fish in hand, a ragged cheer blew up from the guys who had gathered on the bank behind me. I held the fish up, made a short bow and released it to the river. I sniffed my hands—ah, the sweet scent of bass. I’ve been in love with that smell ever since I was a kid.
Smallie Size Isn’t Everything
Smallmouth bass are thick in the Owyhee system, but they do put the small in smallie. According to Dave Tucker, owner and outfitter of Dreams on the Fly, the fish average six to 14 inches, but he gave me hope that there were 17- to 19-inch fish around. Ray Perkins, a regional biologist with the State of Oregon, explained that most bass feed on cyprinids, more commonly called minnows. In the Owyhee, there just aren’t many of them.
“When one looks at the heart of smallmouth country, in Tennessee, there are 76 species of cyprinids alone, compared to only five in the Owyhee River,” he said.
Without the cyprinids, the fish are smaller—so gear up accordingly. This is more like fishing wild trout on a freestone stream. The aquatic bugs are stacked. The staple—mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies—are a primary food source. And the upside is these patterns are flat out fun to fish. I don’t need to tie on the tiniest bug in the box either; hungry bass cut you a lot of slack. But working a hatch of blue-winged olives for a dance with a scrappy bronzeback is just good times. Frankly, I’ve caught all kinds of fish in my life and can’t remember anyone doing miniaturization better than a black bass. Remember, they are boss bad boys—the dark kingpins of the underwater—but they’re not likely to waste their time on a tiny #10 stimulator fly.
Mostly we threw flies, but the river fishes well to lures and plugs and, I would guess, all manner of bass baits. We had one guy in the group flicking hardwear on a little Lew’s Speed Spin and his arm was sore at the end of the day. To keep you on your toes, there are some hefty channels cats to be had and the carp get pretty big. On our last day we hooked into a school of white crappie that had wandered up from the reservoir.
The Bureau of Land Management caretaker we spoke with told us no more than a party a year comes through each autumn.
This is not the place to come if you’ve got a size thing about your fish. Sure, you may hook some bruisers, but it is better to meet these perky, young fish on a level playing field with light tackle.
Running the Owyhee River
For this trip, our kayaks were a vehicle for reaching the fish more than a means of catching them. We used two-man inflatable kayaks. They bounced off boulders and slid over rocks and self-bailed when we had to yank them upright after a flip. We’d make casts from the kayaks as we rolled down the river, but often we’d tether the boat to our waist or nose it up on shore and step out into the shallows to fish.
The stretch of river canyon we ran is a procession of stunning pastel strata and bizarre hoodoos, toothy basalt palisades and deeply scalloped bowls—picture a miniature Grand Canyon. In the deepest cracks of the canyon, the air was still like a cathedral with shards of sunlight slanting down from above and the roar of the rapids echoing in the chill air. The fact that we are alone in the loneliest of country makes an expedition here an enormously private experience. Throw in some fine whitewater runs, a metric ton of bass, the partridge and the chance to wander through the blooming sagebrush in t-shirt and shorts, the Owyhee is some pretty sweet sauce.
The river runs a meager 100 cfs in October, enough to keep anyone but extreme low flow boaters away. The low water rapids are virtually uncharted because 99 percent of river boating is during spring runoff. Whitewater expert Moore ran our only hard boat to serve as point man for the diciest runs. He would slalom down the chute first, then report back via radio to the rest of us waiting above. Our performance capabilities in the big, laden inflatable kayaks lacked and we often ended up lining our boats and wading the most problematic rock gardens.
At one particularly nasty looking run, I got the report back from Moore that there was a big undercut boulder with currents funneling hard into it river right. Could be trouble so we opted to line river left.
“Roger that,” I told him. I stood in the shallows, river left, at the head of the run and I could see what was shaping up. The rest of the group were paddling over and I was going to fill them in. Then I noticed Callie far over in the channel and closing fast.
“Callie,” I shouted. “Get over here!”
And just like that she was past.
I held my breath as she neared the rock, then watched helplessly as she pancaked against it. A few tortuous seconds went by before she popped up. Smiling!
I radioed Moore and he started up to help her free the boat. It finally popped free and they lined it back down to the eddy.
I figured all was well and proceeded to work my boat down along the boney left bank. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Callie hiking back upstream. I watched her wade out to the crash site, cup her hands over her eyes, lean over and peer into the water. Then she dove.
She came up sputtering and hanging onto the rock. When she looked over at me, I scrunched up my shoulders and held out my hands palms up, the international gesture for: “What the hell are you doing?” She rattled off something that got drowned in the roar and dived again.
Dutch Oven Chukar
Fresh partridge are a delicacy the world over and in any fishing camp.
- One partridge or other small fowl per camper
Start by stuffing jalapenos in the breast cavity of the bird. Then wrap the bird in bacon and cover with garlic cloves, salt and pepper, and lots of butter. Splash in some Elysian Immortal IPA and cook about 45 minutes.
There are lightweight Dutch ovens on the market. We took along a 14″ Hard Anodized Dutch Oven by GSI. Weighing a third less than cast iron, it easily fed a crew of six.
This time she came up smiling ear to ear and holding a bag of something lumpy. She reached in and pulled out a sparkling stone. “Rocks,” she laughed.
I’d seen some of the jasper the girl had hauled down from the rimrock; it was good looking stuff. Apparently she was keen on it.
Backcountry Baking, Music and Games
Besides fishing tackle, we had a fair amount of gear piled into our kayaks. Everything from shotguns to cots, alfalfa sprouts to Dutch ovens, discs for disc golf, a ukulele and a small sound system, a large amount of photographic equipment, a couple of rock hammers and a princely stash of beer and whiskey. We had ice even, in a soft cooler, mostly to keep our game fresh but I heard no complaints about the temperature of the beer. The trip was more like a safari than an expedition but that’s just the way we roll.
At the end of a long day, we settled onto a warm sandy beach and soaked in nearby hot springs. We had the run of the canyon and fished out of camp, hunted game and hiked all over hell and back. In the brisk air of evening we played disc golf over the broad sagebrush flats.
Callie fed us Dutch oven partridge and Cajun blackened quail and plenty of beans. Perhaps the best meal we had was jack rabbit cacciatore that was fall-off-the-bone delicious after roasting half a day in the Dutch oven. At night, after cleaning up, we settled onto the warm sand and Callie would bring out her ukulele. We built up the fire with sticks of bone dry juniper that burned like Elven flame and baked dessert in the Dutchie. And always there was the song of the river, changing subtly from one camp to the next but always present in the canyon air, like a lullaby for the soul, lingering within us, long after we are home.
Rob Lyon is a freelance adventure journalist who lives on a small hill on a small island of the Washington coast.
No rush, life moves at the pace of the Owyhee River. | Feature photo: Steve Thomsen