Fly Fishing the Owyhee River in Eastern Oregon; Discover a desert trophy brown trout fishery that has managed to stay under the radar for quite some time

By Gabe Cross with Jeremy Hunt

My name is Gabe Cross, and before moving to Boise, Idaho at the beginning of 2009, I was a full-time fly fishing guide on the White River for nine years. Jeremy and I met way back in 1998, and we became quick friends due to our shared passion for chasing after trout with flies. Although our fishing style and personalities are quite different, Jeremy and I enjoy spending time on the water together – we also spend a lot of time collaborating on his Web site. What a resource has become.

Jeremy and I started kicking around the idea of putting together trips to Boise at the beginning of February, and we are just now starting to really get organized. I have fished the “O” over a dozen times in the last year, and I must say that I have been fully impressed by the fun-factor of the fishery. Once you get over the fact that the water is ‘slightly’ off-color, the layout of this river is absolutely perfect for fly fishing. It just feels comfortable, and catch and release regulations are in place to help ensure that this tailwater is allowed to flourish in the future.

There are almost always other anglers on the Owyhee, but it is one of those places where there is more than enough access and room for everyone. From Owyhee Dam to where the warm springs enter the river (roughly 10 miles) is prime brown trout habitat, and a Bureau of Land Management road follows the “O” for the entire length of the popular trout fishing stretch, which makes getting to good water a breeze.

A bit of history

You may be scratching your head and wondering why you have not heard of the Owyhee before now. How can a river that boasts high concentrations of brown trout that average 19-inches be “underexposed” in this day and age? The Owyhee is actually very well known in the western US, and there can be days when the river is pretty packed. Still, I have always been able to find plenty of solitude with minimal effort, and the crowds on this river are nothing like the mayhem I witnessed in the Ozarks – thank goodness for that. Even with how good the Owyhee is, when you live in the Boise area, there are always other world-class options just short drives away. The “O” would be a true circus if it was the only game in town, but luckily, there are many other interesting fisheries that keep everyone spread out across the region.

The water that flows from the bottom of Owyhee Dam is slightly greenish in color, and this definitely makes the fish very comfortable with feeding for extended periods of time. The way that I understand it is: browns were first stocked in the O around ten years ago – before this first introduction, the Owyhee had been a very sparsely populated trophy rainbow trout fishery. Because of the slow and deep layout of this river, coupled with an abundance of protein-rich food sources, the browns in the Owyhee thrived virtually overnight and several classes of wild fish have developed.

Flows and fishing

Owyhee Dam operates in a way that is protective of the scarce water resources available in the Owyhee River Basin, so very rarely will flows get heavy due to runoff. This means that the Owyhee is fishable throughout the spring most years, while most of the other waterways in the area resemble chocolate milk. Typically, sometime during April the dam operators will raise flows to somewhere in the 200 to 300 cubic feet per second range. The river dynamics are perfect for wading at this level, and hatches can be thick throughout the spring and summer. Flows will drop down to winter levels in October, and perhaps these worryingly low minimum “releases” are one of the primary limiting factors to this fishery fully realizing its potential. I put the word releases in quotes because there is not actually any sort of release taking place during dead-low water. Instead, the Owyhee’s browns find a way to survive on flows that only exist because of leakage at the dam – roughly 17 cubic feet per second enters the river at these times. Still, with all of the deep and slow water available on the “O”, the browns seem to do fine when the river gets low.

Nymph fishing will produce the most action on the Owyhee day in and day out, but there are moments when it seems like every trout in the river is keyed in on a specific hatch. Midges are prolific, along with PMD’s and BWO’s. Terrestrials can provide some surface explosions later on in the summer. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what the fish are taking during overlapping hatches, and there are rises to emergers in the film that resemble a trout taking a bug off the surface, which only adds to the confusion. A dry-dropper rig is a good way to prospect during tricky hatches and to find fish concentrations. The browns on the Owyhee are not notoriously tough to catch, but they do see enough pressure that clean dead-drifts will result in way more hook-ups than sloppy presentations will.

The Boise trip opportunity

Jeremy and I would love for everyone who can to join us on this amazing trip to Boise. There will two days of locally guided fishing on the Owyhee, with the possibility of a guided or “on your own” day on Silver Creek (Click HERE for more info from the Web site). There may also be the chance to fish the Owyhee a third time or the South Fork of the Boise – it will be up to everyone to decide. What I like that we will be in a small group setting where each person can weigh in on the fishing options for the three flexible unguided days.

We are shooting for mid June for the first hosted trip, and we are also considering a second outing in September. The price will be roughly $1000 per person, based on double-occupancy. This will include 5 nights of downtown Boise lodging, group transportation, guided fly fishing on the Owyhee for two days and lunch on the non-guided days. There are plenty of cheap flights into Boise, and the last time I checked, Southwest Airlines was under $300 for a roundtrip from several Midwest cities. Just get to Boise, and all of the logistics will be taken care of from then on, and Jeremy and I will always be around to help with fly fishing issues, to answer questions, organize all activities and we look forward to hanging out and fishing with everyone. When you think about what is included in this package and the fact that there are two passionate hosts involved, it may be impossible to find another value like this anywhere else. Fun is guaranteed and this is a great chance to really learn from those who fly fish for a living.

Please check out the video that accompanies this article. The footage was taken last September and flows were around 260 cubic feet per second. We got into a honey-hole, and I managed to land one nice brown after another for nearly an hour (I’m the short angler with the smoking ‘problem’). The day had been somewhat slow up until we got into this spot, but I definitely seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the afternoon bite. I apologize for the constant smoking, and I have cut down a lot since we took this video. The other fisherman is our buddy John, and that rainbow he landed was a true pig. This species is pretty rare to catch on the Owyhee, but the ‘bows that do survive the gauntlet of hungry browns evolve into wonderful fighters and worthy opponents. Owyhee rainbows are a rare treat that adds variety to the overall fishing experience.

Let us know if you have any questions whatsoever. We will be announcing a firm date in the next few weeks, so drop us a line if you are even just a tad bit interested. This Boise and Owyhee trip offers the chance to fish a world-class river before the masses find out just how good the fishing is there. I wanted to design an experience that offers plenty of “bang for the buck”, and I don’t think you will find a better package out there for budget-conscious anglers who want to possibly fish several premiere destinations on one vacation. I absolutely love the Owyhee, and the fishing there is one of the main reasons I chose to settle down in Boise. This river is really special, and Jeremy and I would love to show you all of the best spots within an hour or two of a really interesting and thriving downtown Boise.



~ by troutdoctor101 on March 18, 2010.

5 Responses to “Fly Fishing the Owyhee River in Eastern Oregon; Discover a desert trophy brown trout fishery that has managed to stay under the radar for quite some time”

  1. Gabe, I just found this post, I had watched the video a while back via Jeremy’s web page. Since I grew up fishing the Ozarks and lived in Topeka for about 20 years, before we moved out to AZ, I tend to check out his page 2-3 times a week. The Owyhee is a great river. My son -Chris – moved to Boise about 3 years ago and when we visit I try to get a “O” trip in, lucky for me he is a fly-fishing junkie too. He got hooked on the long rod about 22 years ago doing the winter C&R season at Roaring River SP, and that has been his rod of choice from then on. We just spent a nice day on the “O” the week of July 4th. Got to visit and see a new grand baby boy(too little for a fly rod yet) and caught some nice browns, even hooked up a good rainbow – for a few seconds, a couple nice jumps then unhooked. I really want to get over to the South Fork of the Boise on one of our visits.

    Liked the video – keep it up and good luck.

  2. I haved fished the Owyhee for years but very little anymore. Is it crowded? Yes. My partner and I, who have both lived in the area for years started going other places. Contrary to what you say I have had people walk in on me and pull their camping trailers right on top of me when standing in the river. Sorry, but most of them are either from out of state or recently moved to the Boise area. Sorry to share the bad news but it’s true.


    • Anymore it’s like that everywhere you go. It’s the people who don’t know any better who ruin it. or the one who have NO RESPECT FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S WATER. THOSE PEOPLE SUCK!!

  3. How come you guys don’t use nets? Holding fish to your body isn’t exactly great fish handling technique………………

    • Steve, Those were my buddies fishing in the video. They are both good fly fisher who really do enjoy the sport. They are both guides as well. This has nothing to do with me so when you ask “why do you guys not use nets”? I can’t speak for them and actually one of the guys is now deceased. I don’t use nets unless I’m landing something big enough to put in the net. Nets actually are bad for the fish. They ripped the slime coat off the fish making the fish exposed to parasites in the water. Another reason is, I can release the fish back in the water a lot faster then messing with a fish in a net. I see it all the time when I’m fishing. The person catches the fish, brings the trout in the net, lifts the net up to him so he can take the fly out and now the fish is holding on for dear life out of the water while it takes who knows how long before he can get the fly out. So if you were holding your breath, how long do you have? Well, it’s the same thing for a fish. If you know how to handle fish using a net then great, but for the ones who don’t nets can be one of the worse things a rookie can have hanging on his vest. Hopefully someone reading this will be more careful when using nets. Keep the fish in the water, in the net while you get the fly out of his mouth. If you want a photo, take one at a time while putting him back in the water before each shot. Hope this helps you understand how I roll. Best fishes….

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