Owyhee Reservoir is Oregon’s biggest reservoir and one of its very best fishing spots.
It’s possibly you’ve never heard of Owyhee, or at least don’t know anyone who’s fished it, even though the fishing for crappie, catfish and bass can simply be incredible here.
The reason it might not be on your radar? Owyhee Reservoir sits on the far eastern side of Oregon, and even a fair bit off Interstate 84, so it’s among the farthest places to fish for most Oregonians and still be using your in-state license.
In fact, Owyhee Reservoir might very well be more popular among Idaho anglers than Oregonians, because it’s fit for a day trip for many Idahoans because it’s only a couple hours west of Boise.
Also called Lake Owyhee, this reservoir impounds more than 50 miles of the Owyhee River, which drains a vast and remote desert area spanning parts of southeastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho and northern Nevada.
If you have a good chunk of time available, a worthy boat, and a yen to go boat-based camping in rugged canyon country on a lake where you’ll undoubtedly be able to find your very own cove, with plenty of fish to catch everywhere around you, Owyhee Reservoir might be the place for you.
If you aren’t comfortable being out on your own, in an arid country with broiling summertime heat, with potentially many miles between you and the nearest boat ramp, this might not be your choice.
Here’s a look at some of the fishing opportunities found at Owyhee Reservoir, followed by some of the other information you’ll need if you might consider planning a trip.
Owyhee Reservoir Crappie Fishing
If you’ve heard that Brownlee Reservoir has the best crappie fishing around, well, that’s not always true.
Yes, Brownlee can be excellent, but there are years when serious slab chasers will find these popular fish running in thicker schools and larger sizes at Owyhee, and at least some anglers who fish both prefer the less-crowded Owyhee.
No matter where you come down on the debate, Owyhee Reservoir clearly is one of the best crappie fishing spots in Eastern Oregon.
Crappie fishing tends to ramp up as the water begins to warm in the spring. Usually by April the crappie catches are getting good, and fishing for them should remain excellent in May and June.
Good-sized crappie spawn during the spring, and when they start to stage for spawning they move into water as shallow as 5 feet, although often a bit deeper.
You should be able to locate lots of crappie (both black crappie and white crappie) when they are in spawning mode, because they tend to concentrate around shallow cover like sunken brush and branches and other structure.
One of the larger coves known for great crappie fishing is Dry Creek Cove, located on the west side of the reservoir roughly a third of the way up the reservoir from the boat ramps near the dam. (See the map below.)
Cherry Creek Cove just across the reservoir from Dry Creek is smaller but also offers excellent opportunities for spawning-season crappie.
At the upper end, there also is plenty of shallow crappie-holding water around Leslie Gulch.
If you have a boat and an explorer’s mentality, you’ll be able to poke around some of the other likely looking areas and find crappie.
If you’re stuck on shore, some anglers do quite well catching crappie from the bank by working similar types of spawning season holding water near the dam.
In fact, the area around the dam is one of the most productive (and easiest to reach) spots once the crappie move into deeper waters after the spawning season.
Once they’re done spawning, these fish will more often be found in deeper water, roughly in the 15- to 30-foot range.
Deeper crappie won’t have brush and branches to hold in, but they still prefer cover so look for the schools around large submerged boulders and rock piles and humps.
Most anglers use crappie jigs, plastic grubs, soft tubes or small swimbaits to catch crappie, which are an easy mark if you show them something that resembles a small minnow.
Lots of anglers find it most effective and efficient to fish their jigs or similar lures under a bobber that’s set or slides the lure to fish-holding depth.
Anglers also can vertically jig or cast and retrieve to catch crappie. A few anglers will troll tiny crank baits or other lures resembling small fish, at least until they located a school of big crappie and then turn to one of the above approaches to more efficiently catch these fish.
Owyhee Reservoir Bass Fishing
Like competitive anglers who sometimes come to bass tournaments held here, recreational fishers might ponder just which bass to chase at Owyhee Reservoir.
Do you want to catch a whole bunch of bass at Owyhee? Maybe focus on smallmouths.
Do you instead want to catch the biggest bass at Owyhee? That quite likely might be the big lake’s largemouths.
If you have some time, we’d suggest divvying it up and spending time trying to catch both species. There’s a very good chance you’ll succeed with both.
We have Owyhee Reservoir listed for both Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing in Central and Eastern Oregon and Best Largemouth Bass Fishing in Central and Eastern Oregon.
Bass fishing also picks up as the water starts to warm in the spring, and bass also will spend time in shallower water to nest.
Especially look for spawning season bass around cover, which at Owyhee Reservoir might include submerged weeds, brush and similar cover.
After the spawn, bass will tend to move into deeper water but are still structure-oriented. At Owyhee, what that cover looks like is most often rocks and points the bass can use to hide and ambush prey.
Bass fishing will remain good in these deeper spots throughout summer and well into fall.
Early mornings and evenings, as well as areas with shadows, will offer the best fishing in this sun-drenched country, and bass may move into somewhat shallower water to feed when the light is low.
According to ODFW, good places to look for largemouth are in the coves near the Elbow, a super tight curve around a point toward mid-reservoir, around the wider section of reservoir near the Owyhee Reservoir State Airport, and in the upper reservoir near the Hot Springs above Leslie Gulch. (See the map below to pinpoint these locations.)
Smallmouth bass are more widespread at Owyhee, so looking for them around likely rocky cover wherever you are is not a bad plan.
Overall, ODFW staff said bass numbers are highest at both ends of the reservoir.
At the lower end, look for them between the Dry Creek Arm and the dam, and they are even quite numerous in the forebay of the dam.
If you’ve launched at Leslie Gulch, anywhere between there and the top of the reservoir is going to hold good numbers of smallmouth bass.
Soft plastic tubes, rubber worms, grubs and similar baits are very effective for Owyhee bass and can be especially deadly early in the year ahead of the spawn but will work all year.
Dark colors like black and purple in your soft plastic lures are often the best for these fish but bring a few other options because results may vary.
Fish these lures slow and deep, especially early in the year when the water is cool and the bass haven’t yet become super aggressive.
Later in the year, after the spawn, those same lures will work but many anglers turn to casting and retrieving larger lures, including crankbaits and swimbaits that mimic smaller fish and other forage.
Bass anglers here also use plenty of spinnerbaits, which provoke an attack response from alpha predator bass. White is a good color to get these fish revved up.
Owyhee Reservoir Catfish Fishing
Owyhee Reservoir is simply one of the best places in Oregon to catch channel catfish.
Channel catfish here are most plentiful in the upper reservoir. Unfortunately, that’s an area that will take a much longer drive or boat ride to reach, but if it’s tasty cats you’re after, it should be worthwhile.
ODFW recommends just about anywhere between Doe Island and where the Owyhee River comes in. That’s a long area that includes Leslie Gulch and the Hot Springs and plenty of other spots.
Using a medium-weight rod, most anglers use a pretty typical still-fishing rig with a sliding sinker above a swivel and about an 18-inch leader below.
Bait a decent-sized bait holder hook with worms or nightcrawlers, cut-up fish or prawns (including pieces of crappie or perch you catch at Owyhee), or prepared baits.
Baits with a fairly strong scent will often be most effective, so I like using an oilier piece of fish (like mackerel, herring or shad) while other anglers prefer to dip into a jar of “stink bait.”
Catfish can be caught all day, and in fairly shallow water at times, but fishing for them is definitely best in lower light and at night.
Other Owyhee Reservoir Fish
At times the fishing for yellow perch can be good at Owyhee.
If you find a school of perch that are running large enough to fillet, you’re in for a treat because these are a mild and tasty white fish that you may even find you like as well or better than crappie.
Perch have small mouths, so use smaller hooks and natural baits to catch them. Schools are often fairly close to the bottom at varying depths.
There are a few redound rainbow trout around, but generally speaking trout fishing in the reservoir itself is not a major draw.
However, the Owyhee River in the first several miles below the dam can be one of Oregon’s best fly fishing rivers, although other methods also are allowed. It holds some really big browns that must be released, and some stocked rainbow trout that may be retained.
You may also catch occasional sunfish and bullhead catfish at Owyhee, but again these are not primary fisheries.
Location and Access
The only substantially developed access and camping at Owyhee Reservoir is at the lower (north) end near the dam.
There is some bank fishing access in these more developed areas, but Owyhee Reservoir is definitely a place where boaters catch the lion’s share of fish.
On that lower river area you’ll find a total of four boat launches.
Know that the reservoir gets drawn down to a pretty extreme level at times, particularly as the irrigation season progresses later in the summer into fall. Some ramps may not be usable in low-water conditions.
Luckily, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has a webpage that tracks the current lake levels relative to the boat launch areas. Find it here.
Regulars at Owyhee also keep tabs on the lake levels because fishing is generally best when the water level is fairly stable. Large drops or raises in water level tend to throw off the bite for a while.
A good bit of the access including most of those launches is located at large Lake Owyhee State Park, which has two campgrounds, a day-use area, a store, fuel, and the other basics you need.
Otherwise, expect to drive an hour or more to Nyssa, Ontario or Vale for supplies not available at the reservoir.
From Ontario, Oregon, it’s about an hour and 20 minutes of driving. Just head south to the community of Owyhee, and then west on Owyhee Road long enough to pick up Owyhee Lake Road south to the reservoir.
From Boise, Lake Owyhee State Park is just under two hours, but if you’re coming in from Portland expect to burn most of a day with a seven-hour drive out Interstate 84 to Ontario and then south to the reservoir.
The only other developed boat launch for your trailered watercraft on Owyhee Reservoir at Leslie Gulch, much closer to the upper end (southern end) of the 53-mile reservoir.
This is a remote and relatively undeveloped area, and the gravel road to Leslie Gulch can get pretty tough to navigate if there recently has been fairly wet weather. A high-clearance vehicle is best, and the Bureau of Land Management suggests you not try to get there with an RV.
There is a BLM campground at Leslie Gulch, resembling a simple rest stop with a restroom, but you’ll have to bring your own water and everything else you’ll need for your stay.
That said, the upper reservoir is definitely better for catfish fishing and has plenty of bass fishing opportunity as well. While crappie fishing is overall more productive lower in the reservoir, you can find them around Leslie Gulch in coves or head down the reservoir a bit.
The best route to the Leslie Gulch area from either Boise, Idaho, or Ontario, Oregon, is to head south of U.S. 95 in Idaho. Near Rockville, head west into Oregon to Leslie Gulch on the slow-going road.