Autumnal Magic in the Owyhee River Canyonlands


I stepped out of the IK and set the bow down on dry cobble at river’s edge. It was dusk, the air beginning to rapidly cool. I stood just downstream of where the warm spring debouched into the river. With the approach of winter, the heated water was a favorite of both bass and bugs. We’d been watching the hatch through the glasses in camp where my buddies now sat sipping whiskey and fishing vicariously.

Blue-winged olives were emerging at the surface beside the cattails just ahead. I was glad it was BWOs as I had brought only a single, well-chewed, parachute Adams and left my fly book in camp. The bug was tied to the end of a short length of line which was tied to the tip of a willowy tenkara rod.

Bass can sip mays nearly as delicately as any Henry’s Fork trout, and my bug disappeared by sleight of mouth as soon as it hit the water. A lift to the rod and fish ho! A moment later a bronze wink twinkled in the evening air as a smallie went airborne in total wriggle free-fall!  Not so small a smallie, either. We danced together through the dusky shallows until I could lift the rod high and swing the fish to hand.

I turned and held it up for the gallery, receiving a rousing huzzah in response, then lowered it quickly into the water where it swam off like a shot. I raised my wet fingers to my nose—ah, the sweet smell of bass!

I love fishing the Owyhee River in fall when the action is hot and the river is abandoned but for the birds, the fish and the four-leggeds—and us.

In half a dozen visits to the river in October we have yet to see another boat. Although, talking with the ranger at the Birch Creek takeout years ago, he mentioned how a party had floated down from Rome the year before… then realized it had probably been us!  With such meager flow (100+ CFS) traditional boaters have no interest. Granted, it is a bit more of a bump and grind than the canon spring flush but there’s still plenty of time on the drift. The river is crystal clear, and the canyon solitude is powerful magic for the civilized soul.

But after having made the float from the Rome area to Birch Creek in October on three separate occasions we realized we wanted a deeper look into the watershed, maybe find our dream stream, the kind of stream an older man might choose to go to pasture on.

The high desert wilderness of the Owyhee River region is vast, over a quarter-million acres, comprising parts of Nevada, Idaho and Oregon, and while the Main stem below Rome runs between 100 and 150CFS this time of year, the Main fork above the branching at Three Forks might run about half.

The south and east fork tribs are solid floats during spring run-off, but they’re effectively unfloatable in October. So why don’t we float in spring?  Well, several reasons. Weather in October is ideal. The upland hunting season is open, meaning we can eat locally, expanding the menu beyond fish. We have the river to ourselves. And not in the least, the water is exquisite—gorgeous!  Color me biased, but I find the muddy waters of spring to be (literally) nauseating.

Tim Davis is the Executive Director of Friends of the Owyhee. And I spoke with him just before we left the islands. Tim grew up in the area and was a gold mine of intel on all things Owyhee. He informed us of the road network (or lack thereof) where we were headed, particularly where it vectored into the canyon.

The four of us arrived in Bend in two rigs one evening in mid-October, with a forecast of clear skies, sunny days and bitter cold nights in the high desert. Foreshadowing the camping ahead we ate outdoors (albeit in a heated patio) while sampling an array of IPAs and pilsners, lagers and stouts (eschewing the sours) at the happening 10 Barrel Pub, then loaded up three cases of our favorite brew for the dry lands ahead. We even slept alongside a river (The Deschutes, running right outside our patio) at the aptly themed Riverhouse—you gotta love Bend, an urban oasis!

We crossed the Owyhee River (looking sluggish) at Rome the next afternoon and turned off the interstate some twenty miles farther, throwing up a cloud of dust as we headed out across a broad sagebrush steppe. An hour later, we dropped off a canyon rim into Three Forks and crossed the piddling North and Middle Forks by bridge and ford. One glance at the steep, rutted, rock-strewn track leading out of the basin made it evident it was time to jettison the booster vehicle.

We stripped it of gear and supplies and loaded everything aboard the big Toyota. Scott and Steven went on ahead on e-bikes. That’s right, part of the plan to get the four of us to our destination and extend our strike range out of camp required two-wheelers. The grade was a bitch. The guys walked the bikes ahead and used hand signals to help Steve negotiate the gnarliest bits. At the top of the grade, we followed a fork to the right across a shelf of level ground to a point where we could see the river sparkling in the tepid sunlight far below.

A beaver run behind camp ran straight through a willow shoot thicket to the riverbank. We used it to carry our pack rafts, IK and SUP down to the water. Warm Springs Canyon, the most exquisite, tiered pool layout I’ve ever laid eyes on, beckoned from across the river. It put the warm in warm springs, though, and while we were ambivalent about a soak (particularly Scott, a hot spring snob) it made a great bath after a long day messing about in the canyon.

We paddled to and from the springs and fished where the heated water flowed into the river. We spotted steam both up and down along the riverside and paddled up to each to wet a line. While there are more fish downriver, we found enough in the deeper, warmer holes to satisfy. In the field we like to eat local, wild game whenever possible; in this case, it was pan-fried bass and chukar.

The river was deep enough in front of camp, with several feet of water across a fifteen-yard-wide channel. We could see where the canyon tightened upstream with rocky shallows; that would be the test.

Well after dark that first night in the canyon, a pair of ATVs rumbled down the grade behind camp. We could clearly hear the drivers yelling back and forth. It was a father and his reticent teenage daughter; apparently, he was teaching her the tricks of night driving. The roar of the engines and the heinous shouting reverberated off the close rock walls while their headlights created a dynamic chiaroscuro. It was so outrageously discordant that it went from profane to inane in a heartbeat. All we could do was watch wide-eyed and shake our heads, then laugh ourselves silly.

The next morning, I took an IK and a fly rod and headed upriver to see what it was like. Intimate was my first take, so quiet and approachable was the water, like a toy river. I got out and walked the boat at several spots, but the river song sang gentle and soothing and I didn’t much mind having to do so. Dark aquatic plants swayed in the currents like fish beneath the surface. (I mistook them for bass several times.) There were miniature riffles and miniature rapids. Every five or ten minutes I would get out to slide the boat over dry cobble in the shallows or work it between larger rocks. The canyon walls towered above the water, fortress-like, so steep there was no way short of ropes to get in or out.

It was a pleasure to float back to camp late that afternoon and when I had to stop and get out of my boat, it swung ahead in the current like an eager child, pulling me along. I could do this day after day, I thought, traveling leisurely, sleeping and waking in such a place.

According to intel from Tim Davis, our next destination waited roughly eight river miles upriver. It looked as if it might be a good spot to launch and make the run down to the road we’d come in on at Warm Springs. The issue would be getting down to the water. It was a tough go getting up to the Drummond Breaks. Like something out of High Plains Drifter—dry wind howling over a sweeping cheat grass, dust deviled plateau.

Steven and Scott huddled atop the gear in the bed of the truck, the e-bikes lashed down. We flushed a large and rare covey of sage grouse, passed scattered water troughs and portable corrals but no cattle. Several hours later we began to descend from the plateau when the road ended on a narrow saddle sitting on a peninsula overlooking the river canyon. It was quickly apparent we were stuck on the rim for the night.

Sometime after the turn of the century, Five Bar Ranch built the original ‘road’ down to the ford to get their goods to markets closer to home—at least as I understand it. But man—looking down a narrow ledge in a steep and rugged side canyon we were all at a loss to imagine it!

Come morning we were eager to get down to the water. Steven and Scott wanted to do some canyoneering up the West Little Owyhee, while Steve and I wanted to have a look at the Five Bar Ranch located several miles upstream. I put a packraft in my pack, and we started down.

Much like at Warm Springs, the river ran exquisitely, gently, ankle deep and sparkling in the autumn sun. A flock of geese passed low and silently overhead. Beaver had been busy here, too, gnawing willow shoots. We saw small animal tracks and deer tracks in the mud. Across the water, the West Little Fork was only a seep. Looking downstream, the canyon narrowed, bent against a rock bluff and disappeared in the shade. I knew from the one glance that this was it, the stretch I wanted to run!

I had packed the ultralight gear along in case I had a chance to float for three or four days—a tiny Big Agnes tent, an ultra-light Nemo pad and a -20 TNF bag (not so light, but the narrow canyon would be a cold sink), and either the pack raft I was holding onto, or an IK. The guys could pick me up in our last camp on their way out. But I had left the gear back in camp.

It just didn’t feel right, and I decided to push it back a year, maybe find a buddy or two to come with me. I could see how I was changing as I got older, and I was pretty much good with that. It felt like the pleasure of sharing this time with my mates was more important than anything I might want to do on my own, and that the company of good friends in adventures such as these had now become my primary determinant. And I thought how uncharacteristic that was for me, coming from such a singular solo ocean kayaking background. Change, indeed.

I picked up my tenkara rod and turned upstream. With the line from the raft hitched to my waist belt, I could cast to likely pockets as I waded along, pulling the boat behind me. At one point I got in to paddle but it was nearly like padding an inner tube and I abandoned the idea. Nearing the ranch, I heard Steve call me over.

He had found a curious bit of settler tag sign (as it were)—a notice painted on a large basalt rock along the trail. Just ahead the ranch hulked low on a flood plain the width of a football field.

We poked around Five Bar Ranch. There were workrooms built into the cliffside and both a circular corral and a holding area fenced off in a narrow side canyon, a stack of unused lengths of wooden stave irrigation pipe and huge, heavy iron wagon wheel rings and rusting farm machinery. The ranch itself was part stone and part log, the tan and rust-colored basalt stonework standing strong compared to the wood, particularly the handsome, enormous chimney!  Beyond awe, I felt a blush of pride in what our brothers and sisters had done with so little compared to what we have at hand today.

It was our last night camped high on the canyon rim. We were heading out in the morning in advance of a storm. Camping so far from the river was a drag, but we were beginning to get behind our Anasazi-style digs. When the wind began to huff over the saddle in earnest, we retreated to a shallow cave in a towering south-facing basalt wall. We had a portable Solo firepit along and as the temperature plummeted under a jaw-dropping, silver-studded blanket of stars so close we could touch them, we fired it up.

It was such a fine natural shelter that I had no trouble imagining a Shoshone hunting, or perhaps, fishing party (Pacific salmon were once in the system, here) hunkered against the same slab, warm still from the sun, a fire crackling. We looked for pictographs, sure to find something, but did not.

I don’t know if it was that old last-night-of-a-trip hurrah or the 10 Barrel brews with mescal kickers, probably both, but the boys were up late into the night. They climbed around the rocky headlands, star juggling and counterpointing their lives (or so I was told, the old guard was asleep). A mood of ambient spaciousness was upon my friends as they wandered rapturously around the desertscape. It was the spell of the Owyhee wilds and the reason we keep coming back.

Editor’s Note: For more information on traveling and exploring Oregon, visit the Travel Oregon website