When a friend approached me to say that her cousin was flying in from Oklahoma the next weekend, loved to fly fish for bass, and needed someone to show him the local scene, I wasn’t all that surprised, nervous yes, but not surprised. Here in Oregon we have an amazing variety and selection of water. With several blue-ribbon rivers flowing through the state, the Deschutes, McKenzie, and Metolius just to name three, and some incredibly prolific still waters like Crane Prairie and Chickahominy Reservoirs, it’s hard work to find a place that even I can’t land a trout or two. For great bass fishing though, the choices can be a bit more limited. I knew that if I wanted these guys to take home some real memories from their trip west, I was going to have to get them into smallies on the John Day River. The John Day River runs more than 500 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of southeast Grant County, west through the sage and juniper landscapes of the city of John Day, and finally north to its confluence with the Columbia River, some 27 miles east of The Dalles. Under the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act, the John Day is classified at 'Wild and Scenic' and considered a protected river.
Flowing through the deep basalt canyons of Eastern Oregon, this watercourse is famous for enormous runs native Steelhead, and Chinook salmon. With 40,000-50,000 Steelhead returning to the John Day each year, it rates as the best all-wild run in the lower 48. What this river is less well known for is that it’s possibly the best trophy bass river in the Western United States. In the early 1970's, less than 100 Smallmouth bass were planted in the slow moving water of the lower river. Since then this species has spread and taken over. 50+ smallmouth bass days, on flies, is not unusual here.
Ranging from 1 to 6lbs, these are hard fighting fish that will throw a serious bend in a 6wt fly rod. Whether you float the long deserted stretches of the river, or pull off somewhere along OR-19 or US 26 (these two highways parallel nearly 100 miles of river, leading into the city of John Day), you’ll have a hard time finding a spot that doesn’t hold at least a few of these belligerent, territorial fish.
In a nutshell, if I were going to take strangers from bass country, bass fishing, this was the place to do it!
Now the first problem that arises with taking a stranger fishing, especially one who is reputed as a lover of the sport, is that you never know just what his commitment is in comparison to your own. I, for example, keep about half of the pockets of my vest filled with flies, tippet, leaders, and the assorted miscellany of fly-fishing. The rest of the space is taken up with a camera, cigars, and usually a small paperback book. I’m used to having occasional down time along the river and I like, as the old scout motto says, to be prepared. These items, along with a fair assortment of unhealthy snacks, assure that I’ll find something to keep me occupied when the sun is high and the fish aren’t rising. My new out-of-state friend, however, kept nothing on his person that wasn’t strictly devoted to the sport. For Casey, down time was the ride there and back, and even that was spent pouring over maps and talking about hatches. He was a hardcore angler, and was aghast that I would waste precious fly box space with a battered Tolkien novel.
I had briefly considered taking him to a private catch-and-release-only pond of my acquaintance that held some very nice largemouth bass. Almost guaranteeing a fine day of kicking a float tube from bank to bank and being towed about by the occasional hawg. Reluctantly I decided against the sure thing, figuring that if I had just toted a couple of fly rods halfway across the country in search of bass, I would be looking for more of a challenge.
So, it was off to the John Day we went, myself, Kathy’s husband Chris (a longtime friend), and Casey’s friend Scott, who had tagged along with him from Oklahoma at the last minute.
My first twinge of concern came when the day of our trip dawned cool and drizzly, typical for Oregon but not the best for bass. The twinge increased when we met at a local parking lot to carpool to the river. All of Scott and Casey’s gear was top-notch, and not with that brand-new 'I bought the most expensive stuff in the catalog, now what’s the funny line for' look either, this stuff had been fished long and hard and was made to take the punishment. My own gear isn’t exactly shabby, just much further back along the wall of the shop than theirs (I’m married and have a mortgage, they’re not and don’t, enough said).
The second difficulty in taking an out-of-towner fishing is the perverseness of nature, that is just because the fishing was great yesterday, doesn’t mean?
I groaned as we pulled into the parking area at Clarno Bridge, just west of the tiny town of Fossil. The water was high. Not as high as I’ve seen it at times, overflowing its banks as it roared north like a torrent of chocolate milk, but just high enough to look good to the unfamiliar and still put the fish down. I also noticed, stepping out of the van and catching my hat that the breeze was up. It looked like the dry flies would stay in the vest and suggested that we tie on a crazy conglomeration of materials that I have, as yet, left unnamed. Basically it’s a weighted olive wooly-bugger on a size 2 barbless hook, with yellow rubber legs and chrome barbell eyes. I fish this under a small split shot to give it some added jigging action, and the desert smallies love it, usually.
This we tried, along with half a dozen other submergibles ranging from bright Purple Bunny Leeches to silvery Clouser Minnows, even a battered old deer-hair mouse popper from the bottom of my vest. . We whipped that stretch of river to a fine froth for the next two hours; the total catch being one fat, lazy pike-minnow, and Chris caught that. I could see my tenuous position as the local pro starting to slip and suggested that perhaps a change of setting was in order. If I couldn’t dazzle them with fish, maybe I could distract them with scenery! We tightened our bootlaces and started along the dirt road that leads downstream from the bridge. Past that point lay a patchwork of public and private lands and the trail is breathtaking. Red rock banks rise on either side of the river, opening out into a wide, stark desert landscape. The river narrows and flashing stair steps of white-water intersperse with long, smooth, shallow runs of crystal water over beds of fine, round river rock. Hawks drift above on high thermals, and crickets sing alongside the trail in the warm spring sun. Casey and Scott agreed that this was all very beautiful, awe inspiring really, now where did we want to fish?
An hour later we still hadn’t caught anything.
Actually, that’s not true. Early afternoon found us lined up along a wide riffle, casting small nymphs in behind the rocks. I had a single split shot about sixteen inches up the light tippet, trying to compensate for the steady breeze blowing in our faces. I was casting to a spot that was just a bit past my abilities, and as I snapped the rod forward, a really serious gust of wind came screaming up the river.
Well, you know what happened next. The little split shot, traveling at fourteen thousand miles per hour, thunked off the side of my head and buried that #14 hook right into the back of my ear! Now I’m sure I wasn’t the first guy there to have ever set a hook into my own hide, and I’d like to think that I handled the situation with humor and dignity. The guys, however, seemed to feel that we should move on, as I had probably disrupted any feeding that might have been taking place within a half mile. They were also concerned that I had defoliated most of the far bank, where the charred remnants of juniper and sage huddled fearfully in a wispy blanket of smoke.
Finally, the sun broke through the clouds and a brief 'bite' kicked in, allowing us each a couple of 2-3lb bronze beauties, carefully released into the current with instructions to go get bigger, before it was time to load up and head west.
We had tried every sweet spot and honey-hole I had ever found along that river, but it was just a slow day. I explained this, feeling a little guilty over the Technicolor stories that I had regaled them with on the drive over. (A week later a local friend and I would fish that same water under a clear blue sky and we’d stop counting fish at twenty each, all on #12 Chernobyl Ants, go figure.)
When the guys finally returned to the van, my cigar was a glowing nub in the twilight, Bilbo the Hobbit was riding out of Mirkwood Forest on a barrel, and the pain in my assaulted ear was just beginning to subside. I slipped my bookmark back in and asked how they did; they told me, politely, but without any great enthusiasm.
As our headlights cut across the Oregon desert and we slurped down the last of the greasy burgers from our lunch bags, I had a thought.
"Say," I mumbled around a mouthful of cheeseburger, "If you guys are free tomorrow, I know this great little pond."
Novelist Perry P. Perkins was born and raised in Oregon. His writing includes Just Past Oysterville, and Shoalwater Voices, as well as dozens of articles in national magazines. Perry is a student of Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild and a frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. Examples of his published work can be found online at http://www.perryperkinsbooks.com/