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Searching for Trophy Smallmouth on the John Day River

By Scott Staats

Sometimes the most memorable fishing experiences are not about the fish we bring home, but the ones that got away. Over the years it seems that missing big fish has become a part of my outdoor life. I’m tempted to write a book titled “The Biggest Fish I’ve Ever Lost.” I know I definitely lost more lunker fish than I’ve ever landed. I’ve even helped others with me lose fish (sometimes even accidentally).
One of my goals has been to land a smallmouth bass over 20 inches from the John Day River in Oregon. About a dozen years ago, my wife and I took our first float trip with fishing guide Steve Fleming and his wife Linda. Fleming, owner of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, has been fishing the John Day River since 1968 and guiding since 1990. On that trip my wife landed a smallmouth measuring 20 1/4 inches and secured her hat.

Lucky anglers landing a fish 20 inches or over are rewarded with a “Master Angler” hat and a certificate. There are two Master Angler Programs: In-Fishermen and North American Fishing Club. According to Fleming, fish between 18 and 20 inches are classified as Trophy fish. He averages about 30 Master Angler fish per year, the highest of any guide on the river. His best year occurred in 2008 with 50 of these fish. This year he’s boated three smallmouth that measured over 23 inches.

In September 2004 I tagged along with Fleming and two other anglers and by the end of the day we caught a total of 142 bass with many between 12 and 18 inches. Just after one of Fleming’s famous Dutch oven lunches, I felt the tug, tug of a bass on the line, lowered the rod and set the hook.

When the fish started taking line, I knew it was a big one. When it jumped, we all knew it was big. Fleming said it was at least 20 inches and all I thought was “don’t lose it.” When it jumped the second time, it spit the hook and swam back to the bottom, taking with it any chance of me landing a 20-incher. Oh well, it’s fun to have a big fish on the line – at least that’s what people say who never land a lunker.

Later in the afternoon, and only a mile or so from the takeout, I had another good strike. Seconds later the fish jumped about 30 feet away from the boat. My heartbeat proceeded to increase precipitously when I saw the bass.

“This is your hat fish, don’t lose it,” Fleming said. Of course the pressure was on to finally land a 20-incher. To make things worse, a couple of pontoon boats came floating by. I’ve never seen any other people on this stretch of river this time of year and they had to pick today to watch me lose the biggest smallmouth bass I’ve ever hooked. Stage fright was building to a crescendo.
The fish jumped a second time then decided to head under the boat. I jammed the rod tip into the water to prevent further jumps. Then the fish started swimming to the surface again and I reeled like crazy to prevent slack.

I could finally breathe a sigh of relief when Fleming had the net under the fish. As he laid the net in the boat, the hook simply fell out of the fish’s mouth. The smallmouth measured 21 1/4 inches with a girth of 14 inches, the biggest I’ve ever landed (5.27 pounds when using the formula: Girth squared X Length/ 800).

This past June I hit the river again with Mah-Hah Outfitters in the hopes of hooking another hat fish. We spent at least 20 minutes fishing one of the deeper holes and as I worked a RippleWorm from Outlaw Baits slowly along the bottom, a fish hit the line. After setting the hook I knew I had something on bigger than anything I caught so far that day. The fish hit only ten feet from the boat so it had quite a bit of fight in it. When it came to the surface we could all see that it appeared to be one of those fish in the 20+ category.

My anxiety was palpable. Fleming stood ready with the net but as the fish neared the boat it made another run. Not again, I thought. I could almost picture the fish jumping, looking my way with a grin and shaking the hook.

But it didn’t jump and I finally worked it back toward the boat close enough for Fleming to get the net under it. I finally sat back in the seat and took a deep breath. The fish measured 21 ½ inches, beating my old record by a quarter of an inch. With a 13-inch girth, we estimated it weighed about 4.5 pounds.

Both my Master Angler fish came on 5-inch black RippleWorms. Best colors are green, pumpkin and black. Fleming uses 1/8-ounce barbed jigheads and adds one drop of Super Glue Gel to the jighead in order to keep the plastic grub on longer – up to 10 times longer he estimates. He also uses a dash of Ultra Bite in Smelly Jelly scent and has found that he can now catch about 10 fish from holes where he usually catches five fish a day.

Besides catching big fish, another goal of course is to catch lots of fish. For those who catch over 100 fish in a day, Fleming gives out “100 +” pins. I’ve done this more than a handful of times. It’s a little more challenging in the spring and fall but by the end of August, Fleming jokes that anglers can cast just about anywhere wet in the river and catch a fish.

Another setup that Fleming has success with is a Yamamoto Senko worm with a “whacky-style” setup. To catch more fish and save more plastic worms, Fleming suggest using 3/8-inch heat shrink tubing, cutting it in ¼-inch sections and sliding it over the worm to the center. You hook it high so the hook has good exposure.

He also has luck using Rapalas, spinnerbaits, poppers and other topwater lures. Although Fleming still catches lots of fish on crankbaits, he’s getting away from them more because he says he catching bigger bass and more bass by fishing on the bottom and slower with plastic worms, grubs and lizards.

One of Fleming’s favorite techniques is using a plastic lizard on a Carolina rig, which entails using a #1 Gamakatsu offset shank worm hook. At the head of a 24-inch leader is a sliding bullet weight ahead of an 8mm-glass bead. He uses a #14 barrel swivel. Success will improve once you learn to feel the bottom and detect the sometimes-subtle bite.

The River
The John Day River in north-central Oregon is among only a handful of western rivers where anglers have an opportunity to catch trophy smallmouth bass in a wild and scenic canyon. The river is one of the state’s most isolated and one of the longest undammed rivers in the nation.

In 1971, 80 smallmouth bass were introduced into the upper reaches of the John Day River by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fish can apparently reproduce faster than rabbits – 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 of a couple of thousand fish per mile. Many believe the next state record will come from the John Day. The current state record is 8 pounds 1.76 ounces, caught in Henry Hagg Lake.

River flows can vary greatly for the John Day. Spring runoff, such as early June of 2010, can have the river raging at around 20,000 cfs. The Bureau of Land Management actually closed down portions of the river since it was too dangerous to float. When I floated it on June 17 the flow was 3,980 cfs and dropping. The water temperature hovered around 62 degrees while the air temperature rose to around 70.
“During higher flows you look for creek mouths with clean water, or slow holes and fish slowly down deep,” Fleming advised.

The river meanders through a lot of agricultural land and water is removed for irrigation from early summer to the first of October, reducing the flow greatly. But that’s when the fishing can be the best. Target the deeper holes and you may pick up some lunkers. Check water levels before heading out. Fleming said the river is floatable and fishable in most sections until the flow dips below 500 cfs.
“Once the flow drops a lot lower, you need to pick shorter sections to float,” he said. Otherwise you’ll spend more time dragging your drift boat or raft over shallow riffles than actually fishing. I’ve experienced this on more than one occasion.

The best places to target smallmouth bass on the John Day are the back eddies where the fish hang at the current line. Most times of the year the bigger fish will hang out in the deeper holes and the secret is to fish slowly and be patient.

Fleming has taken bass anglers from all over the country on the John Day. Charles Waterman, one of the foremost smallmouth bass fly-fisherman in the country, fished with Fleming in 1993. “I rate the river one of the top in the entire nation based on the quality and quantity of fish caught,” Waterman said.
Fleming said that several years of low water have kept many anglers off the river, giving the bass a chance to grow. “We, as guides and anglers, are also getting smarter by using new or different methods of fishing,” Fleming said.

He has recently added Senko worms to his arsenal as well as Outlaw Baits. He also found some half-ounce weights that don’t hang up on the bottom and has added brass and glass on his Carolina rigs in the spring. These methods have helped him fish closer to the current line and catch more fish.

On one trip last summer, four anglers boated 687 smallmouths using Outlaw Baits, with one angler bringing in 250 fish. But this wasn’t a typical trip, Fleming said. “It was the right day and right time and everything just happened to come together.”

When to fish – John Day smallmouth are temperature driven and they can start hitting as early as February some years. In early spring when the bass first start getting active, there’s usually a lower flow and the slower the presentation such as a Carolina rig really hammers the fish. Once the surface temperature of the river hits a constant 40 degrees, anglers can start expecting productive days. By mid-March, the bigger fish begin to bite.

According to Fleming, May is one of the better months to fish for smallmouth on the river. The fish are in the pre-spawn mode and there is enough water in the river for all boats and rafts. When water temperatures heat to 52 degrees about mid-May the smaller, non-breeding fish (about 85% of the smallmouth population) become active, giving anglers a chance at lots of fish as well as those over 20 inches.
Smallmouth fishing on the John Day River will be good until the surface temperature drops to 40 degrees, which is usually around the middle of November. From then on, there’s no sense in getting up at 4 a.m. to go fishing. The best bite will be from about 11a.m. to 3 p.m.

The diversity of wildlife is another reason Fleming likes the river. He’s seen deer, elk, bobcat and countless waterfowl while on fishing trips. Besides smallmouth, the John Day also offers two steelhead runs.

For those wanting to catch both smallmouth and steelhead in one trip, two good times are around the end of October or beginning of November and from mid-February to mid-March. Water temperature is the trigger for smallmouth. They become active above 40 degrees and inactive below 40 degrees.

What’s great fishing without great food? Ever since Fleming started Mah-Hah Outfitters he has offered Dutch oven cooking. “I felt I needed a keynote anchor to set me apart from other guides,” he said. It saves lots of time and the cooking is done in the boat. The meal is ready three hours after lighting the briquettes. By mid-afternoon dessert is ready – either a cobbler from a smaller Dutch oven or even a strawberry shortcake from the cooler.

“There aren’t that many people who use the river,” Fleming said. “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?”

Side Bar – Center-pin fishing

Earlier this year I was introduced to center-pin fishing for smallmouth and steelhead. It’s sort of a cross between spin-fishing and fly-fishing. The rod is 11 or 12 feet long and the reel resembles a fly reel but is bigger and has a button which allows the line to free-spool off of it.

The center-pin technique is similar to the two-handed spey rod but you have the freedom to run a bobber and jig down a seam with perfect control. Three of us caught and released four steelhead and one Master Angler smallmouth.

With center-pin fishing you have the ability to cover more water faster using the free-spooling center-pin reel, you get a great fight when you get one on, and the fish swim away without having to be given CPR since the long limber rod absorbs a lot of shock when fighting and landing a fish.

“Center-pin fishing is like having another golf club in your golf bag, except it usually works each day we use it,” said Fleming.

Side Bar – Places to fish

Best fishing is from Kimberly to the Cottonwood Bridge. Best floating is from Service Creek downriver. There is public access to several good holes to fish between Kimberly and Service Creek (25 miles). A long one-day or easy two-day float from Service Creek to Twickenham Bridge (13 miles). Twickenham to Clarno – about 3 days (33 miles). Clarno to Cottonwood about 5 days (70 miles). There are a few access points between Clarno and Cottonwood but most are private and hard to find. Contact Fleming for more information. With 141 miles of fishable water from Kimberly to Cottonwood, there’s plenty of room to enjoy a peaceful fishing trip on the John Day River.

Side Bar – Places to stay

Service Creek Stage Stop – 541-468-3331. A 6- room, 6- bath lodge, store, restaurant, shuttle and raft rentals are located on site.
Wilson Ranches Retreat Bed & Breakfast in Fossil – 866-763-2227
River’s Edge Bed and Breakfast in Service Creek – 541-468-2470

The Outfitter – Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil – 888-624-9424 or go to www.johndayriverfishing.com.