I don’t know of many anglers lacking a sweet spot for battling a bruiser smallmouth in a swift stream. Drifting through shallow, cold, clear water, casting to an eddy behind a big boulder and just knowing a muscled smallmouth is about to rush out of a shadow and clobber your lure is as good as it gets. It has all the pristine attributes and solitude of trout fishing without having to mess with the daintiness of trout. Substitute the bully attitudes of smallmouth bass instead.
Smallmouths living anywhere are special creatures revered for their aggressiveness and fighting abilities. Those living in streams know how to capitalize on all the amiable traits. They are fish that spend their entire lives fighting swift current, day and night, for every meal. They seem to hit harder, bulldog faster and jump higher than fish living life in a lake. Stream smallies always seem to be sitting right where they’re supposed to be and have no qualms about blasting the lures you enjoy throwing most.
The only unappealing thing about stream smallmouths is they often have to make up in attitude and numbers what they lack in size. Even in many of the best streams, a 3-pound smallmouth is a trophy and a 2-pounder is much more likely to be the top catch of an afternoon’s outing. Living life in swift current isn’t conducive for packing on pounds.
I grew up learning to catch smallmouths from crystal-clear Jack’s Fork and Current rivers in the Missouri Ozark Mountains. Catching 40 to 50 of those spunky little guys was the norm in a summer afternoon, and I’ve spent a good deal of time wading with a bathing-suit pocket full of 1/16-ounce Bullet Weights, hooks, Salty Craws and pumpkinseed finesse worms.
Despite the rarity of trophy-sized fish in those streams, I always considered them some of my favorite places to fish for smallmouths. But now I have another one that ranks higher. The John Day River produces the same fast action I always loved in the Ozark streams, but there, you can change every fourth or fifth fish from a 10- or 12-incher to one in the 16- to 17-inch range with plenty of chances at 3-, 4- and 5-pounders.
The John Day is a tributary of the mighty Columbia River, which is the site of a Wal-Mart FLW Series Western Division event in 2007. The John Day is a smallmouth fishery unlike most others on the planet, with scenery so beautiful that describing it to your wife can be treacherous – she may become jealous of your enthusiasm.
Driving east from Portland, you suddenly leave the greenery of the Cascade Mountains and enter the aridness of the Umatilla plateau. It’s breathtaking country with massive basalt cliffs, where rain storms can build on one hillside and lower the temperature 15 degrees from surrounding hillsides. In the countryside around the John Day, I guarantee you’ll see more chukars and mountain quail than people. While driving, I had to stop every 10 miles or so to take a picture of what I was sure would be the prettiest view I would ever witness.
The John Day stretches for 281 miles and is the second-longest free-flowing river in the country. The 147-mile stretch from Service Creek to Tumwater Falls, where much of the fishing takes place, is designated as the John Day Wild and Scenic River as part of the National Wild and Scenic River program. It isn’t a particularly dangerous river, with Class II rapids being about the biggest you’ll see, but it is very remote. Canoes, kayaks, rafts and drift boats are the only practical boat options, as the river isn’t navigable with a motorized boat. It’s a place where 10 rods and 100 pounds of tackle are unnecessary and impossible to carry – a wild form of bass fishing.
As in all rivers, fishing conditions in the John Day are totally contingent on the river’s flow. Spring, although it’s the best season to tie into a trophy fish, is the most unpredictable season because of often fast, heavy, murky flows due to rain and snow melt. Summer is much more predictable and stable, but the sheer number of smaller bass that become active make keeping your lures in the water long enough to entice a lunker a little more difficult. Short- and long-term flow forecasts can be viewed on the National Weather Service’s Northwest River Forecast Center.
For a springtime trip, you want flows of less than 7,000 cubic feet per second. The best conditions are when the river is dropping and clearing. The day I was there, the river stage was at 5,070 cfs and didn’t look especially clear. However, it had slowed by 500 cfs from the day before, and as it went down, waters around the banks were becoming clear and holding fish.
There is public access on the John Day River, but its remoteness best lends itself to fishing with a good guide who knows the river and the countryside. I contacted an outfitting service, Fishing Guides Northwest, operated by Mark Plummer of Tillamook, Ore., to check on a John Day trip. Mark put me into contact with guide Steve Fleming and Mah-Hah Outfitters out of Fossil, Ore.
Mah-Hah Outfitters accommodates anglers of all interests and skill levels. Some book trips primarily to see the sights and have an enjoyable float and camping trip with plenty of good food. Others are repeat customers with an insatiable craving for the pull of big smallmouths in current.
Steve especially likes these clients, as he himself is a man on a mission for trophy smallmouths. Repeated mentions of smallies that are “Master Angler” status (those measuring 20 inches or more qualify for the Master Angler programs) really seemed to get him excited. Steve’s clients land more than 100 fish measuring 19 inches or more each year, with about 15 Master Angler fish. Steve keeps a box of symbolic red caps embroidered with “Mah-Hah Outfitters” and “Master Angler,” along with the Master Angler pin, to send to any client that catches a Master Angler fish. I couldn’t help but have visions of strolling through the office while wearing one of those hats and a smug grin.
I met Steve at his house early one morning over the 2006 Memorial Day weekend to sample the John Day, and he briefed me over what we’d be doing. Steve fishes from a ClackaCraft drift boat, and watching him maneuver the craft in that current with nothing but two oars – so I always had the best vantage points for casting – was simply amazing. It’s a surprisingly comfortable and easy vessel to fish from, as well, offering a lot more to an angler than the canoes I’m used to using on Ozark streams.
We fished almost exclusively with ultralight rods and spinning reels spooled with 4- and 6-pound mono, though Steve did have a few willow-leaf spinnerbaits rigged on baitcasters with 10-pound test for pitching to undercut banks. The heavier sticks proved to be unneeded, as we were perfectly content to pump bowed spinning rods and listen to screaming drags. Early the next morning, my forearms were literally sore from fighting fish, and I had a particularly nasty case of “bass thumb.”
Lure offerings consisted of typical springtime stream-smallmouth goodies – single- and twin-tail grubs in various colors (a smoke-colored twin-tail was the best that day) and 4-inch Outlaw Baits black Ripple Worms rigged on 1/8-ounce jigheads (soaked with crawfish/anise Smelly Jelly); No. 5 firetiger Rapala Minnows; and medium-diving crankbaits. Steve said summertime fishing can produce constant topwater and fly-tackle hookups as more and more fish become active.
The first stop of the morning was just upstream of a bridge only 100 yards from the gravel-road launch. Few tosses behind the pilings with the twin tails didn’t produce at least a tap. Steve caught the first smallmouth of the trip, a dink, before we milked a half-dozen more small fish, picked up anchor and drifted under the bridge.
Downstream just beyond the bridge, a pair of current breaks revealed two sides of a submerged island. As I continued to let my grub bounce through the eddies behind the bridge pilings, Steve sent a Rapala on reconnaissance near the edge of the current break on the right side of the island and promptly tied into a chunky 3-pounder.
That was all the convincing I needed to pick up a crankbait and work it down the left side of the island. The exaggerated action of the lure in the swift current suddenly came to a slamming halt as a big smallmouth loaded my rod and ripped across the island with my crankbait in tow. He was sitting right where he was supposed to be.
It took a minute or two to work the fish within sight, but when I did, the slab-sided bass splashed on the surface before peeling drag and tearing back into the current. Steve finally netted it as it wore down just under the bridge. The smallie measured just shy of 20 inches. We were still within sight of the vehicle.
Every stop at a new eddy or pool yielded at least one 15- to 16-inch smallmouth – and often several. A sandbar in one 10-foot-long hole produced three stocky keepers on three casts with a grub. On the fourth cast, a single, heavy thump radiated up the line, and I set the hook on another smallmouth breaking the 4-pound mark. Usually, a few casts with one lure produced several keepers, and then we could mine a few more out by switching to something more subtle.
Accurate casts are a critical element to success on the John Day. Many of the best areas are small backflows and eddies adjacent to swift current. These create variations on the river bottom, such as a deeper trough on the edge of an otherwise-featureless flat, and smallmouths pile into them. Trouble is, these eddies may only be a foot or two wide, and you may be drifting by fairly quickly. If a pool produced a strike for me, Steve would always stall the boat for a few more casts. But missing a pool with an errant cast meant drifting on by and possibly overlooking a big fish. Stay on the lookout for these areas while drifting, and don’t fire out a cast too early or too late.
One of the most amazing things to note about the trip is a statement about the river and the area itself. As previously mentioned, my trip took place on Memorial Day weekend. On smallmouth streams in other parts of the country, canoe, raft and inner-tube traffic (though it was admittedly too cold for inner tubes that day) would’ve hindered our fishing opportunities. I think Steve and I saw two boats that day, and neither one were fishing.
One of the final fish of the day gave me the chance to earn a red hat. The bass sucked in the crankbait when I pitched into the mouth of a small feeder creek. When the smallmouth turned a flip on the first jump, Steve announced, “That’s a Master Angler fish!” as he frantically worked the boat against the current so I could keep a short line on the bass. We fought both the fish and the current for a good 50 yards before the fish finally wore down enough for Steve to slip the net underneath it. At 21 3/4 inches long and 5 pounds, 11 ounces, the bass was big enough to keep a foolish-looking grin locked onto my face for several hours.
Though it’s becoming more widely known, the John Day is still a well-kept secret. Locating guides and general fishing information on it can be tough when compared to other world-class fisheries. As mentioned, I first located Steve through Mark Plummer, operator of Fishing Guides Northwest. If you want to fish for anything in the Northwest, be it smallmouths on the John Day or walleyes, trout, salmon or giant sturgeon on the Columbia River, Mark can pair you with a good guide.
Several considerations need to be taken into account when planning a John Day trip. Steve lands big fish almost year-round, with water temperatures ranging from 35 degrees to 85 degrees, but the best time of year to catch a Master Angler smallmouth is during the prespawn in March, April and early May. Once the water temperature tops 52 degrees, the thousands of smaller bass in the river become extremely active. Summertime is, however, the best time of year to catch triple-digit numbers of smallmouths several days in a row. Steve offers multiple-day fishing and camping trips, as well as fishing and chukar hunting trips in the fall. Later in the season, trophy salmon and steelhead can offer a different flavor of fish between smallmouth catches.
Steve stays booked nearly every day of the fishing season, so he requires a deposit on trips ahead of time. He has access to a well-stocked largemouth bass lake nearby that he uses as backup if the river flows aren’t suitable, or he saves your booking for the following year.
So, when my red hat causes thoughts of tangling with big northwestern smallmouths to well up in my head, I sometimes grab it from my door, put it on and step away from my desk. Walking through the office while wearing it – and a smug grin – is pretty satisfying.
For more information on Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, Ore., visit johndayriverfishing.com or call (888) 624-9424. For more information on finding a Northwestern fishing guide, contact Fishing Guides Northwest at (866) 448-4337 or e-mail email@example.com; or visit their Web site at fishingguidesnorthwest.com.