John Day’s Wild West Smallmouth
Bass Attack on the High Desert
By Terry W. Sheely
The bass’ eyes are brimstone red and mean enough to spit cats into the high desert heat.
Its back is thick, firm and as black as the volcanic basalt that covers the dinosaur graves along the river bank. Its cheeks are streaked with camo stripes like the face of a stalking tiger.
The barbless No. 8 hook slips out of the gristle in the corner of the lower jaw and the 1-pound smallmouth vibrates with an attitude that says, “If I had arms and legs I’d kick the snark out of you,”
He’s number 86 on my day and when I release him he tail slaps John Day River water into my face and is gone. The Oregon desert is 107 degrees and shimmering, the rest of the crew is swaying in hammocks that are slung in the thin shade of a juniper grove. At the bend in the river, in the heat, the smallmouth are going crazy and No. 87 rips into my fly the instant it ticks bottom.
Between Nos. 87 and 88 I walk out into the pool until my hat floats, getting wet but not cool. The smallmouth are unbothered by my intrusion—if anything it stirs them up. No. 88 slams the orange girdlebug before it hits bottom and the 4 wt. Sage bends—again.
It’s true what they say, Oregon’s John Day River is the perfect river for new fly fishermen and old bass guys. Beginners appreciate the technical simplicity and the aggressive forgiveness of these fish. Old bass guys just love the action of 100-fish days and the ever-present challenge of artfully suckering a 5- maybe 6-pound smallmouth.
We’re into the third day of a 5-day float, fish, camp, fish, eat, fish and fish again expedition with Little Creek Outfitters (www.littlecreekoutfitters.net ), ghosting through the high-desert quiet and remote isolation of central Oregon’s celebrated John Day River.
The river’s evolution into a smallmouth powerhouse has been rapid, and for several years it has consistently delivered some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the country, an amazing feat for a fishery only 36 years old.
It wasn’t until 1971 that state fish managers sprayed 75 bronzebacks and fry into a sunburned eddy at the Service Creek confluence. The bass exploded filling the little river upstream and down, growing fat on crayfish, damselflies, and a seasonal buffet of terrestrial and aquatic bugs, living long under the protection of light angling pressure. The lack of pressure is not because the John Day lacks fish, but because bank access is at a premium. Walk-in anglers are either confined to bridge right-of-ways through ranchlands or long hikes across vast public tracts of Bureau of Land Management lands.
It’s a combination that makes the John Day River a float-fishing dream.
In rafts or shallow draft drift boats, anglers drift through miles of lightly fished bass water, beaching to cherry pick the best spots. Some float-fitters, like Marty Sheppard of Little Creek Outfitters, offer extended three and five day float and fish packages with overnight camping in ancient juniper groves, and gourmet meals with good wines. Others, like Fossil-based Steve Fleming of Mah-Hah Outfitters (www.johndayriverfishing.com) offer guided day floats and incredible shore lunches topped with strawberry shortcake. Both will get you into 75 to 100+ smallmouth a day, and while most will be in the 10 to 15 inch range, there will be enough slabs mixed into the action to keep the suspense in every cast.
As hot as the fly-fishing is, though, it’s only part of the John Day adventure.
This is rare country—the kind of overwhelming big-sky, sculpted rock wilderness where if anglers aren’t careful they sometimes rest their four-weights on the gunwale, lean back and just breathe it all in.
The banks above the river are, for the most part, lonesome, rocky, with a stark, rugged desert beauty that seems so out of context with Oregon’s advertised image of green-green-and-greener. In the John Day, green is rare except for sage and bitter brush leaves, faded balsa root, and the occasional grove of junipers or a twisted pine. Coyotes yowl and wail into the night, chukars cluck and bounce through creosote bushes, bobcats and bighorn sheep press tracks into river bar sand. Under the rimrock are caves with walls that are smeared with thousand year old berry juice art and stone nappings that were lost in dust centuries before Lewis & Clark and the Astor-Hunt expeditions pushed through.
Dinosaurs lived and died here and left their bones along the river. The geologically acclaimed John Day Fossil Beds are just over that green and umber hill.
Running over 500 river miles, this river is the second longest free-flowing stream in the U.S. and is protected from development as a federal "Wild and Scenic" river and under the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act.
The river canyon is characterized by steep basalt canyon walls, juniper and sagebrush dotted hillsides, abandoned homesteads, and petroglyphs. This is one of the most culturally rich river corridors in the West. For thousands of years the Northern Paiute lived on the John Day and called it the Mah-Hah. In 1812, the river was renamed the John Day. According to the story, on a cold day in 1812 Virginian John Day and buddy Ramsay Crooks poked into the wrong canyon, were nabbed by a band of locals, stripped naked and set free to stumble around winter. They were rescued but within two years Day was babbling in madness. In a bit of twisted irony, 190 years later Mad John's river has evolved into a motherlode of crazed red-eyed Eastern smallmouth flowing through the center of salmonoid-crazy Oregon.
Some describe the John Day River as the Grand Canyon of Oregon, and at times, there is a haunting overwhelming feel in the air as the raft’s drift down the bends and twists between vertical basalt cliffs.
At first glance it seems to be a strange and alien place for a river bass fisherman. A place where iconic eastern smallmouth swarm a trout river that flows through a western desert, winding between walls of red and yellow hills and creosotic junipers. Fly fishermen are dropping blue damsel flies into eddies where Woolly Mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, giant sloths and monstrous leather-skinned plant eaters left their bones. Fossil beds are as common as driveways.
The John Day is not a wild bounce, skitter and scream of a white water adventure. It’s a small comfortable river with good flow, a few interesting rapids, occasional boulder garden and quick runs. There are few places where a decent 5 weight can’t be cast bank to bank with a WF floating or sink tip line, and a 3 wt. will deliver more fight than most anglers ever experience. Hundred fish days can wear you down.
There are three fishing stretches to the John Day.
The river starts in three forks that tumble from the cool Ponderosa pine shade in the high Elkhorn, Strawberry and Blue mountains. The forks are cold, quick water stocked with rainbow and steelhead. Near the community of Kimberly they merge into a mainstream that flows north through desert country for 280 miles of serpentine smallmouth river where every bend flips a calendar photo of ochre smeared hills, cheat-grass slopes, black basalt castles, and fossil beds layered with archeological dreams.
The lowest section is a 9 mile reach between Tumwater Falls and the Columbia River. The falls are unboatable, but below the falls is slack-water that is motor-boat friendly all the way downstream to the confluence with the Columbia River. I-84 bridges and confluence and campgrounds are available at LePage and Phillipi. There is decent smallmouth fishing in the confluence area, but it pales when compared to what waits upstream where the river flows under the absentee stewardship of the BLM .
In the remote float sections south of Tumwater Falls, even rutted two tracks disappear and the John Day slides through miles of geologic magnificence over schools of predatory smallmouth where limited foot access and the widespread catch-and-release ethic have created a bass preserve of incredible proportions where tough, competitive fish fight to inhale passing flies.
Few Western rivers are as perfectly designed for float-trips and fly-fishing as the John Day. The holding water is well defined, easy to read, shallow, and the fish are forgiving and aggressive.
From launch-to-takeout, anglers are awash in biting bass and encased in the big lonely.
Our white-water rafts are pointed at a soft swirl of the Wild and Scenic John Day where biologists report 3000 bass in every mile; 5000 in the best stretches. The Twickenham launch is a short drive south of Fossil which is a sun-bleached crossroads with a couple of motels, horse corrals, and a brick cafe where cowboys, river runners, rock hounds and fly guys sip micro-brews and order steak and eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The locals are proud of their dead dinosaurs and quick to point at rims where massive bones are encased in volcanic basalt and the skeletons of sea-bugs are etched in stone.
At the raft launch blue damsel flies tease the reeds. Over the water, a dragon-fly locks onto a smaller damsel. It's an aerial dogfight, but it's quick and emotionless. Size wins.
Little green swallows, scholarly-looking in their feathered frocks, stare from power lines. Low morning sunlight shoots diamonds through irrigation spray on a nearby hay field. The air is rich with river smells.
Downstream waits five days and 35 miles that promise 100-fish, 100-degree afternoons, wildlife, boulder gardens, sand beaches, stunted clumps of 1,200-year-old junipers, BLM landings, Paiute legends, petroglyphs, pictographs, powerful rockscapes, and sleeping bag nights when the heartbeat of the river thumps in our ears and a horizon-to-horizon chaos of Milky Way constellations will reflect in tired eyes.
Tomorrow we float and throw flies at red-eyed predators stacked in the foam lines and runs, smallmouth poised to attack the first No. 6 orange and white girdle bug with 8 wraps of .025 lead that drifts past.
On his guided trips, Sheppard recommends a fly box filled with two patterns—surface poppers for mornings and evenings and olive Woolly Buggers for everything else. “The bass live on damselfly nymphs; they eat ‘em by the ton. Put on an olive Woolly Bugger and that’s all you’ll need,” he says. I would add a mix of Chernobyl Ants, hoppers, Blue Damsel dries and a few dozen rubber-legged girdlebugs in assorted colors.
Fishing and floating is at its best in June and July and sometimes can be stretched into August depending on the volume of mountain snow runoff. By late summer the water is skinny and sometimes you may need to drag the boats over rocks and drops, but the pools are jammed with swarms of bass. Wherever there is a little depth, a little shade, a little current, there are bass thriving in temperatures that suck the oxygen out of trout and broil the bones of chars. It’s been my experience that the hotter the outside temperature gets the nastier the bass attack.
When the sun is afternoon high and hot enough to sizzle skin, and fry flies on the backcast it pushes these short-tempered predators over a behavorial edge. Bites are savage, aggressive, quick, hard, explosive. Action peaks when it should be dying in the heat of mid-morning to mid-afternoon. In the late evening or along the edge of dawn, when mild shafts of sunlight hit the water in harmless refraction's and there's a whisper of coolness on the water the trout fisherman in me screams until I hit the river. But always I find the same disappointment. In the soft glow of purple light when trout would finally be on the bite, these strange desert bass call it a day save for a few half-hearted pulls sent out to frustrate me.
John Day smallmouth average from 8" to 12", with larger fish in the 18" to 20" range. Big fish are 5 pounds. Memorable fish are 6 pounds, and while the super sized bass are scattered anywhere along the river, the biggest concentration is in the seldom-floated, rarely-fished water downriver from Clarno. It’s a five day float that outfitter Sheppard says is the best of the best. “You have no idea how many five and six pound bass are in this river until low water when you float down from Clarno and can see them in the pools. They look like footballs.”
We launch with the sweet smell of valley ranches in our noses.
The air is hot and dry. The landscape starkly beautiful and powerful. Bleached white rimrock bluffs, hillsides with ochre-painted beltlines, mysterious purple crevices, sun-seared sage, blanched rocks, and distant mountains. Along the river there is a thin line of green where the willows and grasses can breathe water and suck in humidity.
The smallmouth are hugging the thin green line watching the surface for clumsy terrestrials and skittering damselflies. The first 23 eat a yellow cork and deer hair popper that gurgles on the surface. The rest chew the chenille and rubber legs off a box full of girdlebugs.
And the best water, I’m assured, is still ahead of us.