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Floating and fishing the John Day River

The John Day is one of the premier smallmouth bass fisheries in the country


One of my favorite outdoor activities is fishing the John Day River. Last week I got to do just that – an all-day float trip starting at Service Creek.

I would actually float the river for the scenery and solitude alone (we didn’t see a single boat) but I’m glad we had fishing gear along. Two of us caught 53 smallmouth bass, and very few of those were under 14 inches.

Steve Brown and I joined Steve Fleming, owner of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, for a fantastic fishing trip. The weather was perfect and the fish were biting. As a matter of fact, Brown landed a plump 18-incher on his second cast. A good omen.by: SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The author with a 20-inch bass.

Just before lunch I was fishing a plastic grub in a good looking hole when I felt a nice tug on the line. The knee-jerk reaction is to set the hook instantly but I followed Fleming’s advice to lower the tip of the rod and count to five then set the hook. I knew it was a good fish when it started taking some line. After a few frantic minutes Fleming slid the net under the fish and I could breathe easily again. It measured 20 inches and weighed just over four pounds, only the third smallmouth I’ve ever caught that measured 20 inches or more. Fish 20 inches or over are considered Master Angler fish by In-Fishermen and the North American Fishing Club. According to Fleming, fish between 18 and 20 inches are classified as Trophy fish.

Later in the afternoon Brown hooked into a lunker of a fish. When the bass arrived in the boat it measured a whopping 22 inches. All three of us were so amazed by the size of the fish that we forgot to weigh it but we estimated it weighed between five and six pounds.

“The warming of the water by two degrees turned the afternoon reaction bite on where ¾-ounce chartreuse and white spinnerbaits and lipless cranks really shined,” said Brown, a lifelong bass angler who lives in Bend and has won B.A.S.S. tournaments throughout the west.

Besides the lipless crankbaits such as Rat-L-Traps, we caught fish on Rapala X-Raps, Speed Traps, spinnerbaits, stickbaits and plastic grubs. Fleming said he’ll soon be fishing lots of soft plastics on 1/8-ounce Texas set-ups, some top-water lures and flukes.

These fish are river smallmouth and are about twice as strong as any lake or reservoir smallmouth. They have to fight current all the time so they’re powerful fish. Brown said that these pre-spawn smallmouth are the hardest pulling bass that he’s ever caught. The bigger fish are beginning to spawn and are feeding like crazy.

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 well over 1,000 fish per mile. Many believe the next state record will come from the John Day. The current state record is 7 pounds 14 ounces.

“The John Day has to be one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the country,” said Brown. “I’ve never seen a fishery that puts out 2- to 5-pound smallmouth so consistently.” His top fish for the day included the lunker 22-incher, a 19-incher and two 18-inchers.

Besides his passion for bass fishing, Brown stays busy with his business, Better Ways Products, which he started in 2000. His top product is RodWrap fishing grips. Fleming has RodWrap on all of his rods, the oar handles and the net handle.by: SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The John Day River meanders through a scenic canyon downriver of Service Creek.

Besides the great fishing and gorgeous scenery, I always look forward to Fleming’s famous Dutch oven lunches. The day’s meal consisted of chicken, rice, stuffing, baked beans and apple sauce. It sure beats a cold sandwich on a chilly day. Later in the afternoon Fleming usually treats anglers to desserts such as apple cobbler or strawberry shortcake. Nothing like roughing it on the river.

Fleming probably knows the river more than anyone since he’s been down it over 2,000 times. He puts the boat in the position where you want to be and gets you to that spot quietly so you can maximize the amount of fish you can get out of a certain hole.

“It’s rare to find a fishery as healthy and well cared for as the John Day,” Brown explained. “This is due to the stewardship and strict catch and release practices of Steve Fleming and his guides. They really pride themselves on taking care of each and every fish.”

Fleming offers a number of reasons for liking the John Day River. “Number one, there aren’t that many people who use it. 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?”

For the John Day, Brown prefers using 10-pound line and a crankbait rod (bait-casting rod) to throw those lipless crankbaits. With treble hooks on a lipless crankbait he said you want everything to flex and stretch. When a fish makes a run you want the rod to be very flexible.

“Steve Fleming runs a world class guide service,” said Brown. “Whether you are an experienced angler or not, Steve is really in tune to what is happening every second while you’re in the heat of the battle with these fish; this is what great guides do.”

Contact information:

Mah-Hah Outfitters: 971-533-5733 or www.johndayriverfishing.com.

RodWrap: 541-330-6565 or www.rodwrap.com.



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