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Owyhee River
August 6, 2012

Owyhee River

Sometimes I feel like the best trips have to start with a hiccup. Nothing sours a trip faster than everything starting off perfect. I’m not exactly superstitious, but I really don’t want my first cast of the morning to catch a fish, because experience has taught me that if you catch a fish on your first cast, it will probably be your last. Of course this is truer with fish like steelhead, Atlantic salmon, and musky, where if they truly are a fish of a thousand casts, you’ve got a lot of casting ahead of you if you catch one on your first cast.

Following this line of reasoning, if I go on a road trip to fish, I’m OK with making a wrong turn here or there, or in this case taking the slowest, windiest, twistiest route all-together; and that’s how we find ourselves on highway 26 at 1:00 AM. I think this road would be a lot of fun in a Porsche, Ferrari, or Maserati, it’s not nearly as fun in a Ford F-350 with a camper. This is laborious driving, especially in the dark where you can’t see where the next corner is. If we’d taken the fastest route, we’d be there by now; instead we are still winding our way through canyons and about two hours away.

We pull into Nyssa and the clock reads 1:30. In my mind, Nyssa was right next to the Owyhee; in my mind the road signs giving mileage to Nyssa were giving me mileage to our final destination. Reality is, Nyssa is an hour and a half or more from the Owyhee. Few things are more depressing than realizing you are going to be awake for two more hours when every fiber in your being craves sleep. 3:00 AM and I pull the truck into a dirt road off the main road paralleling the river, we stumble around in the drunkenness of sleep depravity and catch a few winks before the alarm goes off at 6:00 AM. There are fish rising lazily in the slow pool below the truck, and I get the feeling that this is going to be a very, very good trip.

If you live in Oregon, the Owyhee is in the middle of nowhere, if you live in Boise, the Owyhee is practically your home river. We knew this going in, and it turned out to be completely true; I would say Idaho license plates held a 5 to 1 advantage over Oregon plates. The Owyhee is a small river, when we fished it was at its higher flows of about 250 cubic feet per second (CFS), compare that to my home river, The Deschutes, which typically runs from 3800 to 6500 CFS. In the fall and winter when irrigation is shut off the river flows at about 50 CFS, I haven’t seen the river at this flow, but I can only imagine it makes the fishing water easier to find. The river runs slightly off color, although the fish certainly don’t seem to mind, this means you have to read the water by reading currents, it also means the fish are not overly skittish.

March is famous for its Skwala hatch, we fished in the middle of April, and while I wouldn’t mind taking part in that hatch, I will trade fewer bugs for fewer people any day of the week. We happened to catch an unseasonably warm streak of weather and had 90 degree blue bird days only occasionally interrupted by brief but violent thunderstorms. 90 degree weather in April isn’t exactly the recipe for epic BWO hatches, so we mostly settled for nymphing and stripping streamers away from the bank. While we didn’t get the surface action the Owyhee is known for, the fishing certainly didn’t disappoint. I don’t know the total numbers of fish caught, but it was a lot, and the action was consistent each day.  It is rare to go into a fishing trip with astronomical expectations, and then have those expectations met; the Owyhee met and maybe even exceeded our expectations.

We started off nymphing for the most part, being a guide I have a lot of confidence that nymphing can tell me what type of water the fish are in. A lot of experimentation on day one, and only two stops turning up fishless, and we had a game plan for the rest of our trip. The fish seemed to be holding below riffles in the slightly deeper and slower water, throw in big boulders or woody structure, and you had a recipe for a lot of fish. Once we figured out the type of water the fish were in, I don’t think we had another fishless stop for the rest of the trip. Having only caught a handful of browns leading up to the trip, my knowledge of their holding lies and habits was limited to what I had read. They certainly seemed to be more oriented to slower water and structure than their rainbow cousins. Their predacious nature was a welcome reality, something you read about, but until you actually experience it, the idea is just that: an idea. Fishing streamers was very effective.

Fishing streamers proved to be an exciting and rewarding way to fish. The strikes were often both vicious and visual, which in my mind made streamer fishing more visceral and exciting than dry fly fishing. Once we got the hang of it, every undercut bank and shadowy spot seemed to hold a fish willing to chase down some meat for lunch. In a lot of ways it reminded me of bass fishing, but holding a twenty plus inch brown evokes a different feeling of accomplishment than holding a bass…not fair to the bass, but true none the less.

As for the size of fish, my younger brother Caleb and my dad Jeff both caught the biggest trout of their lives, and in three and a half days I landed twelve fish over twenty inches. Several fish were caught that flirted with twenty four inches, but I don’t think any actually broke the two foot mark.

It is a pretty incredible experience when a fishing trip, or any trip for that matter, wildly exceeds your expectations, and the Owyhee did that for us. I can’t wait for my next trip to the Owyhee, but I think I’m going to have to be sure to make a wrong turn or two on the way there just to be safe.

 
Rocky Ridge Pig. VIDEO
May 23, 2012
 
Tying an Intruder
May 23, 2012
 
The Classics
October 20, 2011


Jock Scott.  Silver Doctor.  Parson.  Green Highlander.  Gordon.  Durham Ranger.  The Akroyd.  The Gardener.  The Glentana.  The Dunt.  Carron.  Black King.  Lady Caroline. 

Exotic names for exotic flies, and for many that’s all that these flies will ever be: names with no physical or visual reference.  But a few of us, a minority among the fly fishing community, have taken these flies and given them substance, given them life.

There’s no rational explanation for why we tie these flies.  Sure, we can talk about how beautiful they are, how full of history, how universally appreciated, but the reality is they are difficult, expensive and no more effective than any of the modern standbys we have today. It’s like a gambling addiction.  You know that you are just throwing money away, but you have just found real silk gut in a dusty back corner of some dilapidated fly shop and you can’t resist the urge to snatch that up.  And you can’t tell me that blind eye hooks with real silk gut are more effective than eyed hooks, but I’m not going to lie, they sure look a lot sexier.  Then there’s jungle cock at $200 a pop.  Dyed turkey tail at 20 bucks a pair.  Kori Bustard at only God knows how much.  Not to mention all the feathers called for that are no longer legally available; one can only imagine the temptations. 

And it isn’t like these are easy flies to tie.  The easy ones take a solid 30 minutes; the not so easy ones can take 4 hours or more.  My wife can always tell by the eruption of expletives that I’ve screwed up tying in the wings that I just spent thirty minutes marrying together.  Sometimes a fly can call for a tail veiling, two to four body veilings, a wing veiling, multiple cheeks, and six ribs seemingly just to make things tougher.  One has to wonder if the originators of these flies designed them with the specific intention of making them difficult to re-create.  Like being able to tie them was a badge of honor they didn’t want anyone else to have.

These flies are art and history and visual poetry.  Those of us who have gained an appreciation for the classics have an emotional reaction when we see a perfect tie.  The feeling is similar to a first kiss or a sudden grab from a steelhead, the heart swells and pounds, palms are sweaty, our breath is quickened.  Listen; if we’re being honest here, the fact is we are the uppity, crazy-eyed, pious, holier-than-thou, anadromous chasing freaks that you’ve all heard about.  I suppose that’s why we tie the classics, for the same reason we fish for steelhead or salmon, because they are the pinnacle of the sport that has consumed us.

 
Artificially Enhanced
October 14, 2011

As fishermen, we develop relationships with the rivers we fish.  Case in point, I would say I have a live-in, albeit open, relationship with my home river the Deschutes.  I have a friend, however, who has a completely monogamous relationship with the Deschutes.  In fact, up until we met, he hadn’t cheated on her in probably five years.  Maybe I’ve been a poor influence, but then again, neither of us took an oath.

There’s a creek in Washington State, an oasis in the middle of the desert, that is chock full of big rainbow trout.   The hatches are prolific, and consequently the fish are as discriminating as a French viticulturist at an international wine tasting convention.  The water itself is a spring creek, crystal clear, with waving fronds of green clinging to the clay bottom.  One of the most heavily regulated fisheries in Washington, in order to protect the delicate substrate, wading is prohibited.  It is fly fishing only - eliminating the chuck-and-duckers of most tail waters and freestone rivers.  As for the fish themselves, it is rare to see a fish less than 16 inches.  And “see” is appropriate as it is mostly a sight fishery.  The biggest trout of my life was pulled from among a pod of close to a dozen feeders.  26 inches.  9 pounds.  Sight fishing.  And it ran all over the pool with brain-imprinting jumps, tail-walks, and 5x straining head shakes. 

                It’s like a strip club – perfect in most men’s southerly-brained thinking.

                But like all perfect places, this one isn’t.  It’s fake.  Chock full of more implanted fun than a Las Vegas show girl.  And while a stripper may not say “yes” to going on a date with you, we both know that has less to do with her lofty taste in men, and a whole lot more to do with her being asked out on a dozen dates a night.  And sure the fish are discriminating, but not so much due to the fact that your size 24 midge has size 22 hackle, but more so due to the fact that each fish has been stuck more times than a voodoo doll on Halloween.  And like most strippers with implant scars, smoker’s skin, and eighties hair that is only partially covered by poor lighting and over applied makeup, the majority of these fish are kind of ugly if you take too close of a look. 

                Once, when I was ten, my Dad took me to a state run hatchery.  This was early in my fly-fishing career, and seeing all of those giant trout lazily suspended like Sumo Wrestlers relaxing on the couch forever changed the way I saw trout.  Up to that point I had no clue that they could become much larger than the ten incher (a fish that to that point was twice as big as every other fish I had landed) I had proudly pulled from the thirty inch wide irrigation ditch that ran in front of our house.  And let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been fishing, or at what stage you supposedly are at as a fisherman, size matters.  And it was these grotesquely huge fish in the artificially oxygenated pens that stuck in my mind for the next twelve years, but I didn’t think that fish of that caliber could be caught by just anybody.  I figured the only way I would ever get a chance at fish like that was to either break into a hatchery under cover of night, or become rich and travel the world, and do the whole pay-to-play deal.  The discovery of this Washington spring creek gave me the hope and realization that a blue-collar fly-fisherman, who chooses to spend triple-digit days on the water every year rather than make any real money, has a chance at a trophy trout.  Every time I walk up to this creek, I feel a little dirty – like maybe I’m sneaking into a hatchery, or walking into a strip club.  And I definitely don’t want anybody I know to see me there.  Every time I leave, the afterglow is bittersweet, like I’ve just experienced something amazing, and at the same time cheated on every wild trout I’ve ever caught.

                And yet, if I spend enough time away, I feel a burning desire to return… and I always do.

                Like dating a stripper, who might just look real nice hanging from your arm, and might even make a lot of men jealous until they find out she’s a stripper; That 9 pound trout is going to look real good in its frame on my wall, I’ll just have to lie about where I caught her.

 
A Guide's Life
April 11, 2011
 
I went into this thinking I knew everything I’d ever need to know to be a guide. I could row a boat, I could fish, I could BS with the best of them, and in a lot of ways this is all you need to know to be a guide. Early on I resented the cold stares of the old-timers (not really that old, but they’d been at this game a whole lot longer than I), their sharp eyes hidden behind polarized glasses, their scowls hidden by a week’s worth of stubble. But now I understand that it was never me they resented, but rather the business of being a professional; the fact that this twenty-something-year-old kid represented another trip lost they might have gained had I not decided to join their profession. To the true professionals – those that have made this a way of life for, well a lifetime – I’m just another barely un-acned kid who will either burnout or file for bankruptcy, but in the meantime I’m stealing their trips. I’d argue that I’m serious, I’m committed, I’ve got what it takes. But they’ve heard that story a hundred times. Almost every day I run into somebody who “used to be a guide, but I got out when I could” or “yeah, I guide occasionally…do it on the weekends, but my real job is in education.”
What you’ve heard is true; this is a rich man’s sport and a poor man’s profession. The old joke goes like this: how do you make a million bucks in the fishing industry? Start with two million. Most guides are either in the red or just barely getting by, hanging by a thread and hoping the transmission doesn’t go out, or God forbid on the Deschutes, the air-conditioning.
To be successful in this business, you have to have a dawn-to-dusk work ethic, and no matter what you must stay positive. The wind can be blowing forty miles an hour with sideways rain, the fish haven’t been biting all day long, and as a guide you have to ooze confidence. You have to give off the vibe that this next cast is going to be the one.  It’s this same optimism that tells us we can make a living doing this.
And while an awful lot of our clients say they wish they could trade us jobs, say how they’d love to have the freedom that we do; the reality is we are just as tied to our jobs as the average cubicle committed office type. We have to take every trip we can get, because we never know when the next one will come. This job isn’t as easy as it may seem, but it’s more rewarding than I’d ever thought possible. Before I started, I didn’t realize the feeling that came with helping someone catch their first fish, or the joy that comes from opening up a world of possibilities to someone who that morning was a stranger.
As guides we may not get paid vacations, health insurance, or retirement benefits, but we do have the benefit of living life on our terms. Guides are an independent bunch, we don’t tend to be followers, unless the crowds are leading to better fishing, even then we’d probably go find fish on our own and do it our way.
I’m twenty six and four years into my dream job, but I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up. Like a lot of guides I’m stuck in a state of limbo, not ready to give up the dream, but not sure if I’m ever going to actually make any money. Every year I spend away from the real job market, the higher the probability of me either staying a guide (for lack of other skills) or doing a job I hate. I told my wife, Holly, my biggest fear was her getting pregnant. Not because I don’t want to have kids, I’m ecstatic about one day being a dad, but because I’d have to give up guiding and take the best available job in the real world I could find. Then I’d be kid-committed to a job.
Every once in a while she complains, and I tell her I’ll go get a real job, but we’re both bluffing; she’d rather be poor and have me be happy, than rich and the both of us miserable. That’s not to say I’m not making money, I am, but when you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t realize all the costs that go with the job. There are boats, trucks, gas, shuttles, lunches, drinks, snacks, flies, new tires, repairs, insurance, taxes, license fees, and sometimes the list seems to go on forever.
 This job is feast or famine, oftentimes we work two to four weeks hard, and then have a difficult time finding trips for the next four weeks. It’s funny, during the slow times the mind starts to wonder, you begin to think that maybe you should go find a real job, but during the hectic trip-after-trip times you think you have the best life in the world. Now how many jobs are like that, where the busier you are the happier you are?  Every trip, there is a moment that reminds me just how lucky I am; sometimes it’s a fish caught, or a really fun client, but more often it’s simply rowing down the river with the beautiful canyon surrounding and a slight breeze in the air.
I’m living my dream and loving every minute of it. The reality is if you ask me where I see myself in ten years, the answer is right here. Because the further I get from the real world, the closer I get to something real.