A trip down the John Day


Headin Outdoors with Scott Staats

One of my favorite outdoor activities is fishing the John Day River. And recently, 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. I caught 69 smallmouth bass. Steve Brown, who I fished with last year on the river, caught 93.

We joined Steve Fleming, owner of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, for a fantastic fishing trip. The weather was perfect and the fish were biting. It took some time to figure out what these finicky bass would hit, but that’s all part of the fun of fishing.

“We had to keep trying different colors and sizes of lures that would catch the most fish,” said Brown, a lifelong bass angler who has won Bass Anglers Sportsman Society tournaments throughout the West.

“We figured that a crankbait wasn’t really what they wanted, plus it was digging up too much moss,” he explained. “Jerkbaits worked pretty well, but they were catching a smaller class of fish. Finally, we tried a lipless crankbait in a 3/4 ounce size and that worked well but the quarter-ounce seemed to work best and we got into a better class of fish consistently. When you start catching eight fish in eight casts, then you got it.”

Fleming said that things are running about one month ahead of schedule for the river. The water is warmer and lower than usual. On Tuesday the water temperature was around 60 degrees. There’s still a little snowpack left in the river’s headwaters, but Fleming said it’s too soon to predict what the river will be like in the next few months.

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

“The John Day has to be one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the country,” said Brown, who lives in Bend. “I’ve never seen a fishery that puts out 2- to 5-pound smallmouth so consistently.”

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.

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 are just powerful fish. Brown said that these prespawn smallmouth are the hardest pulling bass that he’s ever caught. The bigger fish spawn first and are probably about done now. Some of the medium-sized bass we caught appeared about ready to spawn since the females had bellies full of eggs. They are feeding like crazy now before they spawn.

Besides the great fishing and gorgeous scenery, I always look forward to Fleming’s famous Dutch oven lunches. One of my favorite meals is pork roast, mashed potatoes, green beans and stuffing. 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 around 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.

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. If you’re fishing a jig, Brown said you want a stiff rod, so you can slam the hook into the fish.

“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 each and every second while you’re in the heat of the battle with these fish; this is what great guides do.”