Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Dave Banks wades through a section of the Owyhee River recently as he begins a quest to find trout spawning areas. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon).
NYSSA – On a cloudy December morning, Dave Banks is in a contemplative state as he steps onto a rock and inspects the swirls of deep eddies along a stretch of the lower Owyhee River just below the dam, south of Nyssa.
The Owyhee River cuts deep canyons through the Owyhee Plateau, an area characterized by gradually sloping terrain, craggy red-rock canyons, arroyos, and basalt butte remnants of extinct volcanoes. Its pristine beauty and trophy catch-and-release brown trout lure anglers from every corner of the planet.
Banks, Malheur Watershed District fish biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Burns, was searching for redds — the spawning nests built by female fish to lay their eggs.
Redds are formed by a female fish turned on its side, using its tail to clear a spot in the gravel bottom to spawn.
“You typically see them in areas known as riffles; a shallow water area of a river high in oxygen and food,” said Banks, pointing to a riffle. “They are usually round or oval in shape and lighter in color than the surrounding area.”
Brown trout spawn between October and January.
During this time, female fish build redds to protect their eggs from predation and carry waste and disease away from the eggs. It’s also the most exhausting process in a trout’s life.
The number of spawning nests helps biologists estimate the fish population.
“The goal of spawning surveys is just to count at set times every year and check how many fish do we have spawning,” said Banks, as he waded a shallow.
Part of Bank’s job is to monitor populations that supports ODFW’s mission to provide angling opportunity for current fishermen.
“A healthy population would include different size groups of brown trout as well as fair to good numbers of rainbow trout,” said Banks, who was joined by six volunteers for the spawning survey.
Banks said the state agency started surveying the lower Owyhee in 2005 but stopped in 2012 because of personnel changes.
He said the ODFW started again in 2015, following a meeting with anglers who thought there was a decrease in brown trout.
“We have these seven reaches that we do every year. We do the same reaches and we walk and we count,” said Banks.
He said the redd counts have been fewer than before but was cautious about what these findings might imply about the brown trout fishery.
“The numbers look to be lower than estimates from surveys done in the mid-2000s,” he said. “We can’t point to one reason why the numbers are lower.”
Banks said the lower numbers could be a result of the way volunteers in the past have counted.
Brown trout were once unheard of in the Owyhee River, according to Banks. In fact, they’re not native to any river in the state.
Most game fish in the lower Owyhee are introduced species. Rainbow trout were introduced in the Owyhee River below the dam in the 1950s for recreational fishing. In 1990, the state added brown trout.
“There was a time when people in Boise didn’t even know this river existed,” said Steve Kish, a regular volunteer. Kish has helped with every spawning survey since 2016.
He said the introduction of brown trout in the Owyhee attracted both wanted and unwanted visitors. Kish said people like the challenge of brown trout. They’re reclusive and hard to catch.
As the state Fish and Wildlife stocked the Owyhee with browns and rainbows in the 1990s, the lower Owyhee River grew into a world-class fishing destination.
The brown trout population exploded to the point where fish stocking of browns ended in 1997.
“There are only a few rivers that are really well known in the United States,” Kish said. “The Owyhee is a small river. It’s easy to wade; and it’s become so popular….It’s never been like that. People come from all over the world now, not just from Idaho, Oregon, Washington.”
Kish said anglers like him are now “just trying to keep this river the way it is, so it doesn’t get destroyed.”
He said he and other fishermen have been concerned about the human impact on the Owyhee.
“It’s a wonder that people just don’t pull into the river and fish out of their window,” said Kish. “One of our group’s goal is just getting this river from getting damaged.”
Concerned citizens take the lead
When Banks took his job in 2014, anglers in the area were already noticing changes in the lower Owyhee River.
Banks said local anglers approached him in September 2016 with concerns about the river and asked if ODFW would focus on the lower Owyhee brown trout fishery.
One of those anglers was Jim Clouse.
“We were concerned with the numbers and the habitat,” said Clouse. “We used to have brown trout from the dam all the way out to Snively Hot Springs,” which is 11 miles downriver.
Clouse, 76, has a calm, deliberate air. A passionate angler who has made the river his life and love, Clouse built a ranch a stone’s throw from the Owyhee nearly 13 years ago, putting to use his building skills. His lifetime of fishing started during his childhood on family trips to the Ozarks to fish for bass and walleye.
Clouse and his wife moved down to the Owyhee River from Yellow Pine in 2005, after falling in love with the area’s fishing. At that time, the Owyhee River was still relatively unknown.
“It was just a nice experience. It had been that way for years,” said Clouse. “Now there is a lot of advertisements from different fly clubs about the Owyhee. And this has put a lot pressure on the ecosystem of the river.”
He is convinced that humans are affecting the pastime and livelihood he loves, from the trout in his backyard to the warm water fish in the Owyhee Reservoir.
He said the first red flag was fewer trout downstream the rock tunnel.
That was when he and his longtime pal, George Roth, decided to do something.
“Our personal fishing of the river, the numbers and sizes of trout had changed,” said Clouse. “We were concerned by the human impact on the river, and we wanted to know what we can do to help the river go back to what it had been.”
Roth, 82, started fishing at the lower Owyhee’s brown trout fishery when he moved to Nyssa.
He shares Clouse’s passion to preserve the Owyhee.
“The brown trout make the Owyhee River special,” said Roth. “They survive on their own in there, and fishing has been great.”
Roth said the Owyhee’s surrounding beauty, trout and accessibility have drawn more people to the area over the years. It is trout heaven, he said.
Catch and release is the common practice here, Roth said.
For him, the sport of fly-fishing is not about securing food. Rather, it’s about the thrill of the chase, the skill of the catch, and about communing for a time in the “last great unprotected expanse of the American West.”
Roth thinks the state should consider limiting fishing on the river.
“I just think it has gotten so famous for fishing there is a lot of pressure on it,” said Roth.
Fishermen like Clouse and Roth consider the mark they can make on the future with their volunteer work.
“We’re just a grain of sand here. But we can also be a mountain if we can pile our sand together,” said Clouse. “Working toward a goal is what drives us and what’s drives me. We need people in this country who care.”
Clouse said he’s been working to bring together different public agencies and local fishermen to discuss the management and health of the Owyhee River.
“It’s all about the fish and mother nature, so our future generations will have the experiences that I had,” said Clouse. “As an outdoorsman, I am obligated to help the next generation get a chance to enjoy the things that I enjoyed. I want to make the river available to my grandson and future generations. That is my passion and what drives me.”
Reporter: Kristine de Leon: 541-473-3377.