The John Day River in Central Oregon is among only a handful of Western rivers where anglers have the opportunity to catch trophy smallmouth bass in a wild and scenic canyon.
In 1971, 80 smallmouth bass were introduced into the upper reaches of the John Day River by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. By the end of that year, juvenile bass were found throughout a 50-mile stretch of river. From that original stocking, the John Day is now considered by many to be one of the best smallmouth rivers in the country.
Today, the fish are scattered throughout most of the John Day system, with estimates of a couple thousand fish per mile. The current state-record smallmouth is 7 pounds, 14 ounces, but many believe a John day fish will eclipse that mark in the near future.
Steve Fleming, owner of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, Oregon, has been fishing the John Day River since 1968, including 15 years as a professional guide.
He has taken bass anglers from all over the country on the John Day. Charles Waterman, one of the foremost smallmouth bass fly anglers in the U.S., fished with Fleming in 1993. "I rate the river one of the top in the entire nation based on the quality and quantity of fish caught," Waterman later said.
Fleming offers a number of reasons for liking the John Day River. "Number one, there aren’t that many people who use it," he says. "We always have a quality experience when we’re out on the water. The river offers big fish, which are catchable in numbers. For those folks who are new to fishing and come in July, August and September, they will catch 50 to 100 fish apiece per day. What other body of water offers this?"
The John Day is one of the state’s more isolated rivers. While most people flock to the more popular Deschutes River for rafting and trout fishing, few venture the extra miles to the John Day. Wildlife along the river include deer, bighorn sheep, elk, beaver, otter, muskrats and a variety of birds and waterfowl.
Size On the Rise
John Day smallmouths are temperature-driven and can start biting as early as February some years, according to Fleming. He had his best season on the river last year, boating 38 smallies over 20 inches.
Fleming attributes several factors to the increased incidence of large fish. "First off, the new slot limit didn’t hurt," he says. Bass between 12 and 16 inches must be released, and the limit is five fish per day with only one fish over 16 inches. He also says the last four years of low water have kept many anglers off the river, giving the bass a chance to grow.
"We, as guides and anglers, are also getting smarter by using new or different methods of fishing," Fleming adds. He has recently added Senko worms to his arsenal, as well as Outlaw Baits. He also found some 1/2-ounce weights that don’t hang up on the bottom, and has added brass-and-glass to his Carolina rigs in the spring. These methods have helped him fish closer to the current line and catch more fish.
Fleming had 44 different clients catch over 100 bass per day last year. By the first of June, he says anglers can start experiencing these 100-fish days. On one trip last summer, four anglers boated 687 smallmouths using Outlaw Baits, with one angler bringing in 250 fish. "But this wasn’t a typical trip," Fleming says. "It was the right day, right time and everything just happened to come together."
Although Fleming still catches lots of fish on crankbaits, he’s been "getting away from them" because he's catching bigger bass and more bass by fishing slowly along bottom with plastics.
In early spring, when the bass first start getting active, there’s usually a lower waterflow. The slower presentation, such as a Carolina rig, really hammers the fish. Once the surface temperature of the river hits a constant 40 degrees, anglers can start expecting productive days. By mid-March, the bigger fish begin to bite.
Smallies By Season
The best place to target smallies on the John Day, according Fleming, is the back eddies where fish hang at the current line. If tossing a crankbait, throw out into the current and get them working as they come across the current line. Fish the Carolina rig as close to the current line as possible, usually using a 1/2-ounce weight.
Also, in the early spring, Fleming suggests fishing the deeper holes and not wasting time on the flats until the water warms to over 50 degrees. According to Fleming, May is one of the better months to fish for smallmouths on the river. The fish are in the prespawn mode and there is enough water in the river for all boats and rafts. Water temperatures heat up to above 52 degrees about mid-May, and more fish become active, giving anglers a chance at lots of fish, as well as those over 20 inches.
In the summer, when water levels are low, target the deeper holes again. By the end of August, he jokes that you can cast out just about anywhere wet in the river and catch a fish.
A few factors keep anglers away from the river during the summer. The number-one reason is water level. With heavy irrigation occurring from early summer through the first of October, the John Day can be too low for drift boats. Even rafts may need to be dragged across shallow riffles. But that’s when the fishing can be the best. Target the deeper holes and you may pick up some real lunkers, but always check water levels before heading out. From 300 to 500 cfs, you may be dragging rafts in places and 10 miles on the river can be a long day.
Crankbaits, such as Rapalas, along with plastic lizards, grubs and worms are popular lures for John Day smallmouths. One of Fleming’s favorite techniques is using a plastic lizard on a Carolina rig, which entails using a No. 1 Gamakatsu offset worm hook. At the head of a 24-inch leader is a sliding bullet weight ahead of an 8mm glass bead. He uses a No. 14 barrel swivel. Success will improve once you learn to feel the bottom and detect the sometimes-subtle bites. One of his secrets is using scent--he prefers Smelly Jelly and doses the lure every few casts.
Fleming says that smallmouth fishing on the John Day River stays good until the surface temperature drops to 40 degrees, which is usually around the middle of November. "From then on, there’s no sense in getting up at 4 a.m. to go fishing," he says. The best bite will be from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The diversity of wildlife is another reason Fleming likes the river. He’s seen deer, elk, bobcat and countless waterfowl while on fishing trips. Besides smallmouths, the John Day also offers two steelhead runs.
How To Go Now
For those wanting to catch both smallmouths and steelhead in one trip, two good times stand out: during the end of October or beginning of November, and from mid-February to mid-March. Water temperature is the trigger for smallmouths. They become active above 40 degrees and inactive below 40 degrees.
Ever since Fleming started Mah-Hah Outfitters, he has offered Dutch oven cooking. "I felt I needed a keynote anchor to set me apart from other guides," he says. It saves lots of time and the cooking is done in the boat. The meal is ready three hours after lighting the briquettes.
Call Steve Fleming at Mah-Hah Outfitters, (888) 624-9424, for information on the river or to book a trip. You can also email him at email@example.com. For those wanting to know what’s happening on the river, check out Fleming’s website, where he keeps updated fishing reports (www.johndayriverfishing.com). He keeps the last two years of reports available.
To check on river levels, call (503) 261-9246, or check out www.fishinginoregon.com.
The Service Creek Stage Stop in Fossil offers everything anglers need for an outing on the river, including a Bed & Breakfast, raft and Bi-yak rentals, shuttle service, café and store. Call (541) 468-3331, or check out their website at www.servicecreekstagestop.com.
Rafts and shuttle services are also available at the Lone Elk Market in Spray, (541) 468-2443. There is a $5 charge to put in and take out at the Spray mill site.
The John day's best fishing is from Kimberly to the Cottonwood Bridge; best floating is from Service Creek downriver. There is public access to several good holes between Kimberly and Service Creek (25 miles). A long one-day, or easy two-day, float is from Service Creek to Twickenham Bridge (13 miles); Twickenham to Clarno, about three days (33 miles); Clarno to Cottonwood, about five days (70 miles).
There are a few access points between Clarno and Cottonwood, but most are private and hard to find. Contact Fleming for more information. But with 141 miles of fishable water from Kimberly to Cottonwood, there’s plenty of room to enjoy a peaceful fishing trip on the John Day River.
Added Bonus: Cast and Blast
From November 1 through March 1, Mah-Hah Outfitters teams up with Skip Geer, owner of Mayville Flat Shooting Preserve, to offer a unique two-day cast-and-blast experience. For only $300 per person, you get fully-guided hunting and fishing trips. The package includes one day of upland bird hunting on the preserve for pheasants or chukars. Hunters choose either seven roosters or 10 chukars. Geer even provides lunch and his own dogs for the hunt.
The following day, Fleming takes anglers out on a private-access section of the wild and scenic John Day for smallmouth and/or steelhead. He also provides his famous Dutch-oven lunch, cooked right in his drift boat as you fish.
Mayville Flat Shooting Preserve is located between Fossil and Condon on a 6,000-acre ranch. The preserve consists of two 1,280-acre plots of great bird habitat, including three canyons and great views of the Cascades. There is also a lodge available for hunters.
Contacts: Mah-Hah Outfitters, (888) 624-9424; Mayville Flat Shooting Preserve, (541) 384-4705. Hunters need only provide their own shotgun, shells, hunting and fishing licenses.