Southwest Fly Fishing

Still-water Trout in the Sagebrush
By Micah Lauer

Working along the edge of a reed line, a heavy trout greedily plucked hapless Callibaetis duns from the water’s surface. Each telltale swirl gave away the fish’s trending direction. I did not have time to switch to a suitable fly, so I cast the weighted leech pattern I was fishing and hoped for the best.
   With a surprising jolt, the rod nearly jumped from my hand. The hooked fish arced across the shallow bay, my fly line slicing through the water. In the willows, a cacophony of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds cheered me on as I worked to gain the upper hand. After a few minutes, I netted a spirited 3-pound rainbow trout. As I released the fish, its tail smacked the water, showering me as the trout sped away.
   I sat back to clean off my sunglasses and took in the landscape. Tall snowcapped peaks formed the southern horizon. Low basalt bluffs ringed the broad valley, talus slopes tumbling down their flanks. The fragrant breeze mingled sweet sagebrush, native wildflowers, and pungent wild onion. Hawks and ravens circled high overhead, lazily riding invisible thermals. Not a bad start to the day.

 

Salmon and Steelhead in the Sagebrush
Straddling the Idaho/Nevada border, the heart of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation is a picturesque valley of marsh, wild grasslands, and wildflowers surrounded by miles of remote sagebrush steppe. Forced into relocating to an Indian reservation in the mid-1800s, a Western Shoshone tribal leader known in literature as Captain Sam sought Duck Valley for its anadromous fish (chinook salmon and steelhead), wildlife, edible plants, and fertile soil. The Duck Valley Indian Reservation was created by an executive order on April 16, 1877. Additional lands were annexed in 1886 and 1910 to accommodate members of the Northern Paiute tribe, bringing the reservation to its current size of 452 square miles. Approximately 2,300 Shoshone–Paiute hold membership at Duck Valley, with 1,700 members living on the reservation.
   Duck Valley has been a traditional homeland of the Western Shoshone and the Northern Paiute tribes for thousands of years. Native salmon and steelhead, returning upstream on the Owyhee River as far south as Tuscarora, Nevada, were an integral part of tribal life. Tribal leaders estimate that prior to the extinction of anadromous fish runs in the Bruneau and Owyhee Rivers, salmon and steelhead consumption averaged 143 pounds per tribal member annually. Archaeological digs in a cave used by native people for thousands of years revealed ancient skeletal remains of steelhead and chinook salmon up to 36 inches
in length.
   Unfortunately, the annual return of anadromous fish to Duck Valley did not last. A large downstream dam completed on the Owyhee River in 1932 blocked upstream access for fish returning from the ocean to spawn. Together, the Owyhee Project and the Bureau of Indian Affairs partially-completed Duck Valley Irrigation Project destroyed the salmon, steelhead, and trout fisheries that the Shoshone–Paiute relied upon for personal sustenance, the local economy, and cultural uses. Water remained a vital resource on the reservation, but now mainly for supporting farming and ranching operations—still two of the most significant contributors to the reservation’s economy.
   In 1937, the Owyhee River was dammed upstream of the reservation to form Wild Horse Reservoir and create a reliable irrigation source. On the reservation, river water was diverted and canals were engineered to deliver water to several artificial reservoirs. Starting in the 1950s, fish returned to the reservation in appreciable quantities, but this time via tanker trucks used to stock rainbow trout. In the wake of the collapse of the anadromous fishery, human-created fisheries were utilized to provide an alternative food source and recreational opportunities.

 

Sheep Creek Reservoir
Constructed in 1955, Sheep Creek Reservoir is the oldest and largest of the Duck Valley reservoirs. It covers 855 acres with a maximum depth of 23 feet. The northern half of the reservoir is composed of somewhat shallow coves that can be particularly productive when fish are cruising the shallows. Early and late in the season, anglers might find success working these areas with both sinking and floating lines. As the water warms during the summer, anglers should devote attention to the middle of the lake and south end toward the dam where the water is deepest.
   Sheep Creek is the most turbid of the Duck Valley reservoirs. A severe storm event in 2005 caused surface runoff to spill into the reservoir. Since then, dissolved sediments, which researchers identified as likely originating from a playa west of the lake, have settled out only minimally. Typically, visibility is two feet or less. A depth finder is a helpful tool for discerning depth and structure. Anglers using boats with motors will benefit from the ability to cover more water in this sizable reservoir. 
   Because of the reduced water clarity, trolling or retrieving leeches and Woolly Buggers can be a more effective technique than fishing small flies suspended under a strike indicator. I prefer leeches, hackled Woolly Buggers, and the Sheep Creek Special for their ability to push water and create a pulse that attracts the attention of fish. Anglers visiting Sheep Creek can expect to catch 16- to 18-inch rainbow trout with some larger surprises. This is similar for all Duck Valley reservoirs.
   Sheep Creek is the southernmost reservoir on the reservation. Just south of the town of Owyhee on Nevada State Route 225, a large sign marks the turn at Chinatown Road (aka Airport Road). The last 8 miles of road to the reservoir are well-maintained gravel. At the reservoir, there are pit toilets, a boat launch, and several camping spots with fire pits and sun/wind shelters. Numerous two-track roads through the sagebrush invite anglers to explore the reservoir’s perimeter.

 

Bass in a Trout Paradise?
A recent development on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation is smallmouth bass showing up in Sheep Creek Reservoir. Along with the other Duck Valley reservoirs, Sheep Creek receives water from Wild Horse Reservoir, which boasts a healthy population of smallmouth bass. While screens on inlet streams and reservoir outlets at Duck Valley are designed to prevent fish from escaping, all bets are off in high-water years when streams are swollen with snowmelt. In fact, several years ago, wiper bass (striper/white bass hybrids) from Wild Horse were reported downstream in Owyhee Reservoir, well over 100 river
miles away.
   I remember the first time I tied in to a bass at Sheep Creek. On a spring outing a couple of years ago, my line went tight and a rather uninspiring and puzzling fight produced a plump smallmouth bass. Despite its size, the cold water had kept the fish’s struggle to a minimum. Two more times that day, I found myself reeling in bass. Since then, I have not caught another one.
   In 2010, an angler landed an 8-pound, 10-ounce, 21.5-inch smallmouth, the new Nevada state record smallmouth bass. Other anglers have reported bass exceeding 5 pounds. While this may sound like an exciting proposition for fans of fly-rod bass fishing, the tribe considers bass an undesirable species and asks anglers not to return them (same with yellow perch and chub) to the water. The intention is to maintain trout-only fisheries.

 

Lake Billy Shaw
The smallest and newest of the Duck Valley reservoirs is Lake Billy Shaw. The 430-acre reservoir was constructed as a trophy trout fishery in 1998 as part of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Substitution for Anadromous Fish Losses and Resident Fish Losses mitigation programs. While small, Billy Shaw is the reservation’s deepest reservoir, with a maximum depth of 36 feet. Much of the reservoir is more than 15 feet deep.
   The reservoir first opened to fishing in 2002 and initially required a separate and more expensive permit than the other reservation reservoirs. Now, anglers need only the standard $15-per-day reservation-wide permit. Billy Shaw is the centerpiece of the Duck Valley fisheries program. It is managed as a catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only body of water. Anglers must fish flies with single barbless hooks with no more than two flies per rod. Boats may be powered only by electric motors or fins
and oars.
   Many trout in Lake Billy Shaw range from 16 to 18 inches, but anglers can expect to find a class of 19- to 21-inch fish that make it truly a trophy reservoir. Some fish exceed this mark with anglers occasionally reporting fish in the mid-20-inch range.
   The reservation stocks triploid Kamloops rainbow trout in Billy Shaw. When you hook one of these hard-fighting trout, you are in for an adventure. Fishing a slightly lighter tippet is not a bad idea due to the water clarity—which can exceed 8 feet—but keep it heavy enough to prevent fish from burying themselves in the weeds. A fishing partner of mine found this out the hard way, losing three fish in a row to break-offs while setting the hook. So 3X fluorocarbon is a reasonable tippet choice for nymph fishing and 2X for pulling streamers on a sinking line. I like a nonslip loop knot for the additional movement it imparts on a retrieved fly.
   The clear water of Billy Shaw allows anglers to see weedbeds protruding up from the bottom and, sometimes, trout cruising along the weed tops. The vegetation provides a source of cover and structure. A fun way to fish Billy Shaw is to kick-troll or wind-drift the deeper water between the reservoir’s many fingers with a sinking line and leech or leech/Bugger combo. Then, pull out a floating line and cruise the coves for fish chasing emerging damselflies and Callibaetis mayflies among the weeds, and searching for ants and other terrestrial insects that fall from shoreline willows. 
   As the water warms during midsummer, anglers should concentrate their efforts on deeper water in the main lake near the dam. On one summer trip, my fishing partner and I failed to find any fish in the lake’s shallower fingers and coves. However, once we moved into water that dropped off to 20 feet or more, we caught fish only 6 to 10 feet under the surface. It is not uncommon for surface water temperatures to exceed 70 degrees on the reservation by July and then hover in that range until mid-August. When these conditions occur, anglers should take care to play and release fish quickly and consider limiting their angling efforts during the heat of the day. Many anglers fish the reservoirs earlier and later in the season for this reason.
   Billy Shaw sits between Sheep Creek Reservoir and the town of Owyhee and is reached from the same turnoff as Sheep Creek Reservoir. The route is well signed. At the reservoir, anglers will find plenty of access, a small boat launch, pit toilet, camping areas, and dirt roads circling the impoundment.

 

Mountain View Reservoir and East Fork Owyhee River
The most heavily fished reservoir on the reservation, Mountain View covers 640 acres and has a maximum depth of 24 feet. It provides the easiest access, being less than 1 mile from the main highway, just north of the Idaho border. Mountain View is a year-round fishery, has no special bait restrictions like Sheep Creek and Billy Shaw, and features campsites with electrical services. For these reasons, it is quite popular. Despite all the attention Mountain View receives, fishing can be quite good. The tribe stocks Mountain View heavily; it receives more fish annually than Sheep Creek and Billy Shaw combined.
   Owing to extensive stocking and the put-and-take nature of Mountain View, anglers can expect to catch fish in slightly smaller average size ranges than the other two reservoirs, but often in greater quantities. One June, I anchored my pontoon in the middle of the reservoir and, fishing a pair of generic nymphs under a strike indicator, caught a fish on nearly every cast for two hours. Anglers can often find fish rising lazily along weedbeds, picking a variety of insects from the water’s surface. There are some big fish roaming the reservoir. On several occasions, I have caught rotund trout in the 4-pound range. In 2012, one lucky angler reeled in an 8.5-pound rainbow.
   While most anglers visit Duck Valley to pursue still-water trout, the tribe does allow catch-and-release fly fishing on a short stretch of the East Fork Owyhee River upstream of the reservoirs. This small, bushy stream does not feature the same large trout as the reservoirs, but is a diversion worth considering during a longer trip or on a day fouled by high winds. Anglers will have an opportunity to catch native redband trout. In ample water years, upstream Wild Horse Reservoir can spill some large trout into the river, so you never know what you might find.

 

Preparing for Duck Valley
Planning a trip to Duck Valley can be akin to organizing a small expedition.Groceries and gas can be purchased at Our Grocery Store (Tammen Temeeh Kahni) on the north edge of the small town of Owyhee. However, the store is only open during fishing hours, so either take a midday break or appoint someone to go before the 7 p.m. closing time. Aside from the few basic amenities found in the town of Owyhee, there is a motel/café/bar approximately 12 miles to the south in tiny Mountain City. Beyond that, it is nearly 100 miles south to Elko, Nevada, or 75 miles north to the tiny town of Bruneau, Idaho. Alcohol is not sold on the reservation; visiting anglers should plan accordingly. 
   Weather can be volatile. The reservation is located on high sagebrush steppe, just above 5,000 feet in elevation. Planning a spring visit means preparing for both cold and hot weather conditions. April and May can bring beautiful sunny days with highs in the 70s or blizzard conditions. Sometimes, both these conditions occur in the same week. The winds can frequently howl. I occasionally fish an 8-weight rod simply for the convenience it affords me when casting against an afternoon gale.
   The fish do not seem to mind a little bad weather. I remember one productive spring afternoon at Mountain View Reservoir; the fishing had become increasingly exceptional as lightning, buffeting wind, and sheets of rain closed in on the water. I was fishing a small bay near the dam and would row upwind, shake out a length of intermediate line, and wind-drift to the other side. Each time I made this drift, trout violently struck my leech pattern. Concerns over my personal safety finally drove me off the water, but I fought eager fish all the way back to shore and the protection of my truck.
   Anglers making the drive to Duck Valley from points south will pass other productive angling opportunities in Nevada, such as Illipah, South Fork, Wild Horse, and Wilson Reservoirs, as well as the Ruby Marsh. One attractive option is to break up a long drive with an overnight stop at any one of these locations, although you may find yourself too eager to get to Duck Valley and wanting to spend all your time fishing
the reservation.
   Duck Valley typifies the old adage that the farther you go away from the masses, the better the fishing. A trip to this beautiful country may involve a long drive and plenty of prior preparation, but comes with the promise of large, hard-fighting trout. And sometimes, you may find yourself fishing one of the reservation’s beautiful reservoirs with no company other than a choir of boisterous shoreline songbirds.

 

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