As a side note, I have been bypassing trips to the Owyhee river for the last year, having felt quite sorry for the little river with it's low flows, hordes of fisherman and scrawny underfed fish. While the river continues to hold surprising numbers of trout per mile, I haven't been impressed with their fight or their overall health. Some local fly shops have also preached taking it easy on the browns lately, so I deemed a little hiatus was the responsible thing to do. However spring on the Owyhee is not to be missed in my opinion and who was I to turn down an invitation. I am happy to report, despite my concerns and observations, that the Owyhee river, version 20.14, has proved all my worrying unwarranted. The fish are still there in great numbers and some are big and healthy.
Dave and I had trouble finding the fish at first. We tried every manner of nymph, small and large. We tried nymphing a few deeper sections but at 23 cfs the holes turned into mini stagnant lakes, even the runs were kind of pathetic and very shallow. Frustrated, I started trudging carelessly along the banks and shallows in search of greener pastures. I eventually came to a beaver lodge with thousands of chomped up willows submerged just under the surface. I observed from a distance and noticed schools of small fish darting frantically and boiling at the surface. I had seen large minnows do this "boiling" at lake Powell when running from stripped bass. I cast my zugbug and zebra nymph to the fringes of the sunken willows and within seconds my indicators jumped beneath the surface.
A Northern Pike minnow or Squaw-fish slammed my midge but then rolled over and came quickly to my net. I caught six more of his brethren surrounding the fry and willows. I took a photo to commemorate my first Squawfish ever caught on the Owyhee. I hope desperately that the fry the Squawfish were eating weren't juvenile browns. A least my hands now smelled like fish and the curse was lifted. I fished on, the sun high and water clear, even for the Owyhee. No fish were feeding on the surface so I worked a nice trough section hard with my nymphs and caught one small rainbow and a brown, giving me a trifecta of fish, which made for a small accomplishment.
The sun was nearing the edge of the high canyon walls as I waded along in knee deep, flat water and noticed puffs of silt kicked up here and there by fleeing fish. I have noted Owyhee browns hugging the shallows and banks in the past, sipping midges but that was with 120 cfs or more and a place to bolt to for cover. Could they be holding in this foot of barely moving water with nothing but similar aquascape to flee to? Turns out yep!
As shadows fell on the water and obscured both my shadow and some visibility on the water, I switched over to a large black and olive streamer and waded into the middle of the river. From this position I tiptoed slowly upstream, taking small quiet steps and cast to each bank. Dave was using a similar strategy casting from the middle but with a San Juan Worm. The results were immediate as we began catching fish. A large brown erupted from its rest as I plopped my streamer nears its head. Like a submarine it breached the water, a small wake forming as it charged my fly. WHAM!
I yelled to Dave "It's a big one." My 4 weight played the fish well in the low water but netting it took some time. I grabbed my camera but the GoPro battery was dead, a terrible design flaw that plagues this otherwise kick ass camera. It was a beautiful, thick 21 inch brown, maybe not the longest fish but by far the heaviest and healthiest looking I've caught on the Owyhee. Five more fish followed within 30 minutes, all were stout and strong and above 18 inches.
What worked for us:
1. We had our greatest success from the middle of the river at the end of runs and in the flats. Fished spooked easily until lower light concealed our presence.
2. Most browns were in less than 2 feet of water and approx 5-15 feet off the bank. Many of the trout were basking in the shallow flats nearly motionless until the fly was presented.
3. We fished the evening hours before and after the sun set behind the canyon walls, therefore I don't know what brought morning success.
4. I started with a bead head zebra midge which always brings some success on the Owyhee in the winter and spring.
5. Dave used a San Juan Worm with great success later in the evening. The San Juan comes beaded or without and in a multitude of colors.
6. I used a standard green on black, bead head Woolly bugger, trailed by a Zugbug.