Owyhee river provides solitude and great fishing
Each summer I try to take at least one trip that requires some work to get to.
This year, I chose to make the effort to explore some of what the Owyhee canyonlands have to offer.
Much of the region is wilderness study area, and it requires some work to access public land, but it is absolutely worth the effort.
Fishing in the region is primarily either in the Owyhee Reservoir, or on the Owyhee River.
The reservoir divides the river into two distinct parts.
The lower Owyhee is managed as a trophy fishery for brown trout. Fish from 16-20 inches are not uncommon. The river is paralleled by a gravel road for much of it's length below the reservoir, and is easily accessed from Nyssa.
This time of year the water is slow flowing, and the brown trout are picky in what they take. Most fishing is with flies, although some do use lures, and bait is still legal in the river.
Fishing is catch and release, with grasshopper patterns and dry flies size 18 and smaller being the most productive.
The Owyhee Reservoir is best accessed from Owyhee State Park, which is located just up the reservoir from the dam, the largest in Oregon. With 42 miles of reservoir to fish, and trout, smallmouth bass, channel catfish and crappie all plentiful in the lake there is literally something for every fisherman.
Since I am not much of a fly fisherman, I don't have a boat, and the purpose of my trip was solitude, I chose to fish the upper portion of the river.
Upstream from the reservoir the river has limited access. The Owyhee flows through miles of deep canyonland, with most is accessible only by hiking or from roads little more than jeep trails.
Near Rome, Highway 95 crosses the river, and the BLM has a launch site for rafters, who frequent the river in the spring.
Downstream from Rome, a lengthy drive on a rough four-wheel drive road leads to Chalk Basin. The basin features otherworldly formations of volcanic tuff as well as rugged rims. Wildlife including chukar, wild horses, and antelope are plentiful in the area, however, it is a steep and somewhat lengthy hike to reach the river.
Further downstream the top end of Owyhee Reservoir is accessible at Leslie Gulch.
Twenty-five miles of gravel road provides access to the reservoir and a boat ramp, which is currently closed due to low water levels in the reservoir.
The final eight miles into the reservoir provide fantastic scenery of rugged cliffs and gigantic rocks, which have been shaped by thousands of years of erosion.
I tried fishing briefly in the lake, but without a boat, the low water levels made it difficult to fish. The area near the boat ramp is shallow this time of year, and although I saw large fish jumping in the middle of the lake, I caught nothing but six- or seven-inch long bass.
Hiking in the Leslie Gulch area requires work, but does provide great vistas, once you reach the ridgelines.
Determined to find fishing, I spent just one night at Leslie Gulch before leaving for greener trails.
From Jordan Valley, near the Idaho border, the Owyhee is accessible in at least three locations. South of Jordan Valley approximately 30 miles, gravel roads turn into dirt roads best suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles. These roads, both rough and steep, and nearly impassible after rain, lead to North Fork Campground and Three Forks. Both have access to the river, and provide opportunities for both hiking and fishing.
Even further upstream, the river is also accessible by a lengthy drive from McDermott, Nevada.
There is one other relatively easy way to access the Owyhee and that was the option I chose.
Approximately eight miles north of Jordan Valley on Highway 95, a small sign on the left side of the highway points to Jordan Craters, and Owyhee River Access.
From the highway it is 25 miles to Jordan Craters. The area boasts 27 square miles of the youngest lava flow in Oregon.
With splatter cones, a large crater and miles of rugged terrain to explore, the region is a must-see for amateur geologists.
There is just one trail in the area, a short trail which leads to the rim of coffee pot.
The trail runs around a portion of the rim, then plunges on a steep trail into the crater. The trail to the bottom of the crater has 600 feet of elevation loss, and 600 feet of steep climb to get back out.
The trail then drops back off the rim and follows the base of the crater back to the dirt parking area.
The remainder of the lava flow is accessible, but has no trails, meaning any hiking will be on rough terrain filled with sharp rocks, hidden holes, and no established path. In addition, the black rock gets very hot. By 9 a.m the morning, it was already 90 degrees. By noon it was well over 100.
Still, the site is worth a visit, just make sure that you have plenty of water.
Most of the road into Jordan Craters is good gravel road, although there are a couple of large potholes, which become muddy after rains. In addition, the last mile of the road has a BLM sign, which says that the road is recommended for four-wheel drive high ground clearance vehicles only.
At least last week, the road was easily drivable in my Lexus SUV, it was just rough and required vigilance to avoid some of the larger rocks.
A few miles from Jordan Craters was my real destination. About five miles before you reach Jordan Craters there is a small sign on the right that says Owyhee River Access.
From the junction it is six miles to the river. The first two miles are good road. The final four are both steep and rough. Four-wheel drive is recommended, but not necessary if it is dry.
As you descend from the canyon rim to the river, the road becomes both rougher and steeper.
Eventually the road reaches the bottom of a steep canyon. From there the road crosses a small stream several times. Although the fords are short, the road descends steeply into each ford, then ascends quickly before dropping into the next ford.
An extended cab four-wheel drive pickup, which was just ahead of me on the road, had trouble navigating the fords, but in my small SUV, it was no problem.
Once you reach the river, the BLM runs a small unimproved campground. The location is listed as Historic Birch Creek Ranch on maps, and has several old ranch buildings, which are off limits to visitors, but are still interesting to look at.
In addition, there are several rusted pieces of old farm equipment on the site.
In the spring, the campground is sometimes busy as Birch Creek Ranch is one of just two spots for rafters to exit the river (The other location is Leslie Gulch).
However, in late summer, with no one rafting the river, the campground was largely vacant.
In two nights at the river, I saw just one other group, a family of three, which camped about a quarter mile from my campsite.
During the day they went upstream, while I went downstream, and we never saw each other until evening.
From the ranch, at least three miles of river are easily accessible to hikers.
The river is filled with smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and large suckers.
The one sucker that I inadvertently caught was more than 24 inches long and took nearly 20 minutes to land on my ultralight pole and four-pound test line.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, fishing on the upper Owyhee is currently slow.
Don't believe it.
The smallmouth bass fishing was the best that I have ever seen.
Virtually everything I threw in the river attracted fish.
Earthworms worked great, but also led to catches of channel catfish and suckers.
Although bait fishing worked well, I had my best results on three-inch plastic grubs. The two colors that seemed to work best were black with copper fleck and pumpkinseed.
The darker colored grub worked best in the middle of the day, while the pumpkinseed worked best in the evening and early morning.
Reportedly flies and rooster tails also work well.
Fish ranged in size from 10 inches up to 20 inches. However, I was unable to catch any of the larger fish, not because they didn't bite, but because they were too large for four-pound test line. During the two days, I caught well over 200 fish, but broke off at least 20 large fish.
If you decide to go, I would recommend larger tackle.
Getting to the Owyhee requires commitment, but the region is beautiful, and the fishing is really good. I highly recommend the trip.
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