Crazy for smallmouth on Oregon’s John Day River.
by Terry W. Sheely
(from the May/June 2008 issue)
Twickenham launch on Oregon’s John Day River. Boatmen, guides, and fly dudes shuttling back and forth across cracked mud, sweating and lugging dry bags, rod cases, food boxes, roll-up tables, and roll-out sleeping pads from the van to four fat Riken inflatables.
There’s a Christmas sizzle in the hot July air, a quiver that says we’re about to step
into a wild lonesome river full of fish. Full
of smallmouth, that’s what Ecklund said, and when I hung up the phone he had me pumped, ready—if necessary—to crawl to this sun-seared chunk of high desert with a raft and a four-weight bungeed to my back. The JD is literally choked with smallmouth, he had said: 3,000 bass in most miles, 5,000 in the best. Git down here!
I’m on the road, letting tire hum massage away brain junk, rolling mind and body into River Time. Up and over Washington’s Chinook Pass, south through the smoldering Horse Heaven Hills, past the heat-wave shimmers in red pepper fields, rolling vineyards, and reservation sage lands.
At a truck stop in Biggs, I slip into Oregon, suck in a lung of diesel fumes, downshift and fly uphill to the Wasco cutoff and a left turn onto Oregon 206, two black lanes of asphalt bubbles pointed into Eastern Oregon’s Big Empty and blindingly blond wheat fields.
Forty miles of brushy coulees and black basalt cliffs white-streaked with alkali and raptor doo, flatland mule deer and skittering coveys of California quail and chukar. No houses, no traffic, no nothing; a sky so blue I expect the darting swallows to leave concentric rings.
My destination is Fossil, a crossroad town almost into the 21st century. Elevation 2,654 feet, square on the 45th parallel, equal distance between equator and North Pole. Population 470 and falling. A three-bedroom house can cost less than a new SUV in Portland.
A brick-front café serves up microbrews, and steak and eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Down the block is a flat-faced mercantile: wood floors, glass counters, canned veggies, four flavors of jerky, and good leather gloves. Across the street a smiling lady peddles plumbing, state liquor, and computerized Oregon hunting and fishing licenses, $43.75 for seven days of fishing and another $20 for a plastic flacon of decent Canadian sundowner.
Ecklund’s outfit is holed up at the Fossil Motel, a red-roofed collection of dinosaur chic, deflated rafts, trampled grass, extruded lawn furniture, and a two-ring wading pool. A half-dozen fly fishers in polarized sunglasses and khaki shorts have succumbed to the motel keeper’s temptation to “Sleep in a Fossil Bed,” and are camped out in square rooms with beds, sheets, and electricity. Outside, a mule deer doe high-steps the hyphenated centerline of Fossil’s main drag, ears up, tail switching. Across the street, Steve Fleming hoses down his drift boats and gets ready for another tomorrow working JD smallmouth. Steve is the homegrown guide, Ecklund says, and his Mah-Hah Outfitters is the full-time JD bassin’ specialist.
I pass on the Fossil bed and roll out my bag on a pad at the edge of a horse pasture. A string of mule deer is crossing a low ridge to the west backlit by a sky of exploding tangerine.
Next morning, at the Twickenham launch, we wait for the requisite prefloat drill. Twickenham isn’t much, a low spot in a low bank below the Rowe Creek Bridge. Edible flies buzz the reeds. Sunlight shoots diamonds through irrigation spray on a hay field. The air is seductive with river smells. Ecklund paces and gives us the guide eye.
First rule: Boatmen are always right.
Second rule: Boatmen are always right. Fall overboard, drift feetfirst until you can stand. If you eat it or carry it, then pack it out. Lots of artifacts—leave ’em. This is wild country. Careless people enjoy expensive helicopter rescues. Stupid people reach into snaky spots, tease scorpions, argue with cougars, and smoke on shore.
“The John Day has some of the hottest smallmouth bass fishing in the country,” he says, swatting a natty little blue damsel off his Polaroids. “Maybe the hottest.”
“Wait. I got more,” he says, “Big bass peak in early April, but fishing stays hot till the end of August. You’ll hook
seventy-five to a hundred per rod per day. Average is under twelve inches, but there’s big ones around—eighteen to twenty inchers. We’ve caught twenty-two inchers over six pounds. Fat! Aggressive, lots of ’em.
“Mostly we fish from boats, drifting, casting to the banks. Don’t bother with waders. Water’s warm, sun’s hot, fish wet.”
And oh yeah, it’s all catch and release: Ecklund law, not ODFW.
We hand car keys and 20 bucks to a farm kid with a promise that the cars will be shuttled five days downstream to a dirt and Sani-Can state takeout in the willows at Clarno, just above the mid-river’s only decent rapid—Class IV torrent in March, boulder-garden bottom banger in July.
One gear boat, three fish rafts with two anglers and one boatman each. Michael Powell squares away in the bow of my boat. Michael is a millionaire book peddler carrying new fly gear and heavy business baggage. His float is a five-day get-out-of-Dodge gift from the family. I lunge into the stern. Ecklund’s on the oars. He flicks flame, sucks in, and blows out a blue puff of ceremonial Dominican. Oars dip; fly rods flex.
The JD is a neat little river, sometimes quick, sometimes sullen. Big enough to float, small enough to hit both banks without double-hauling.
It flows north through high desert into the black lava of north Oregon. Bald hills shimmer with heat and distance and fade into cloudless skylines. Some hills are belted with red and yellow dirt, geological timelines exposing 40 million years of mammal evolution and ecological changes. Archaeologists, paleontologists, geologists, and other ’gist- family cousins love this place.
I’ve been dissed by smallmouths from the East Coast to the Midwest, Ontario to North Carolina, and I’m thinking this is one strange stronghold for the red-eyed sweethearts of America’s bread bowl. This river has all the trappings of fine volcanic freestone trout water, without the trout. Five hundred miles of free-flow, never violated by a dam that wasn’t built by beavers or flood logs. The water is crystalline, ruffled, and boulder-bottomed. Deep pools divided by oxygen-infusing rapids, boulder gardens, and slick dark runs. Mayflies, caddis, mosquitoes, midges, beetles, hoppers, worms, grubs—lots of protein.
The bass didn’t volunteer for JD duty, didn’t evolve, migrate, or fall from the sky. Like most Western panfish, John Day bass are Government Issue.
Decades back, the resident rainbow and cutthroat populations collapsed when ranchers figured out that if they sprayed enough of the river onto rocks, they could grow cow grass.
Trout took a beating. Now it’s bass, channel catfish, and when the water cools in the fall, anadromous runs of wild steelhead and Labrador-size chinook salmon. Biologists say the JD supports the largest spawning populations of wild spring chinook and summer steelhead left in the Columbia River system. These are gypsy fish that know how to duck summer’s sizzle, sliding out to the cold Pacific to grow big, coming back in September or October after the John Day cools.
Smallmouths are the big dogs of summer now. Released in 1971 by a well-intentioned state agency trying to salvage something for fishermen, those first 135 bass became an invading horde, driving out remnant salmonid spawners, eating the spawned, and extorting prime waters.
Somehow the conquering bronzebacks got swept into the Save the Wild and Native mix of facts when the JD’s roadless doglegs were federally designated as Wild and Scenic.
We are downstreaming into hunter-gatherer country, a bunch of catch-and- releasers armed with flies and four-weights drifting into puncture vine, poison hemlock, rattlesnakes, and nasty bass. My kind of place.
Stripped to shorts, shirt, and big hats, we hunt from daylight to dark, throwing fly lines below caves where Paiutes wrote fish stories with berry squeezings.
At night it’s sleeping bags under the sky surrounded by mysterious rustlings in the cheat grass, the heartbeat of the river thumping in our ears, tired eyes closing on a chaos of Milky Way.
The story of how this ragged region got its name is uncomfortably close to our flotilla’s own peculiar craziness. Historians say that John Day, a Virginian, was a trapper and explorer and a little too-loosely attached to the Astor-Hunt Overland Expedition. On a cold morning in 1812, Day and buddy Ramsay Crooks poked into the wrong canyon, got nabbed by a band of locals, stripped naked, and set free to stumble around winter. They survived, but within two years, Day was babbling enough so that somebody renamed the Mah-Hah River after him. A day into the float and we, like Day, are babbling, but our insanity is smallmouth, it’s summer, and most of us are at least wearing shorts.
This morning woke up hot and dry. Again. At the edge of the river, between parched land and smallmouth water, a line of green willows and grasses breathes humidity and incubates clumsy insects in a bass cafeteria.
The daily ritual begins when the sun is low and the bass are looking up at beetles, poppers, damsels, deer-hair any- things. As the sun climbs and temperatures spike, mule deer head for shade, the bass dive, and we swap wussy thistle fluff for muscle flies—Girdle Bugs, Chernobyl Ants, Woolly Buggers, wrapped with enough lead to deck a range steer.
My high-noon pattern is an olive-green Girdle Bug with a white butt and 10 wraps of .025 dredging lead on a number 6 hook. Leaders get cut back to five feet, tippets to two feet of 3X, a deadly combination for slap shooting small pockets from the moving boat.
The thermometer hits triple digits, and by early afternoon, spit sizzles and wet flies dry on backcasts. Inexplicably, the heat pushes the bass into insanity. Midday bites turn into savage explosions. Just as inexplicably, when a whisper of cool edges into evening and what I, in another place, would call magic time, Mad John’s desert bass go off the bite.
Each day we drift farther into the back of beyond, where even rutted two-tracks have disappeared in an empty rocky upheaval absently stewarded by the BLM.
Slap cast, strike, miss, slap it again and hook up. Lip it, land it, kick it back and do it again, 50, 75, 100 times. There are places where fly fishing is technical, subtle, and success so abstract that fishers, rather than discussing catches and fish fights, dote on gear, casting rhythms, presentation, blueness of the sky. On the John Day it’s about fish, food, sleeping on the ground, and wild things. Cast, mend, stick, play, jump, thrash, wrestle, laugh. Nobody discusses the poetry of double-hauling or the Latin of anything.
Two days into the float, and Michael’s in love. His aimer de le Jean Day is a copper-colored, rubber-legged, pigeon-size creation called a Teqilly, named partly for its creator and partly for the drink that freed her to tie it. It’s huge, fearsome, a buster of bigger bass. It also hurts like hell when it sticks behind the ear. For the next two days I’ll flinch every time the Teqilly pigeon-whistles upriver.
Lunch comes beneath a tarp stretched across oars rigged between rafts: feet in the river, eating smoked salmon and dill pickles and ignoring the sound of smallmouths smacking bugs.
Night camps are at designated BLM sites in groves of twisted junipers fruited with bitter blueberries—the nidus of horrible gins. Some of these junipers were already 400 years old when Izaak Walton was plagiarizing William Samuel’s The Arte of Angling. Some had seen seven centuries of fires and floods before Columbus’s little fleet nosed into the bonefish flats at Hispaniola. Now they provide thin shade where we can gulp smoked oysters, consider the Paiutes, argue the merits of hot peppers, and wait for lamb brochettes, Moroccan-spiced chicken, or whatever else Ecklund’s crew coaxes from camp stoves and charcoal.
Before the big freeze-out and the Cordilleran ice shield, this desert was tropical seashore, and dinosaurs loved it. Fossilized dino bones are more common than driveways.
Below the dinosaur bones and clinker-shedding cinder cone on Beard’s Point, Mike Clark is wade-bobbing; arms, shoulders, head, and hat teeter-tottering out of the JD. Sweat runs down his neck. The thermometer hit 103 an hour ago. He slings a bunch of line at a seam in the cliff shadow. The black Chernobyl splatters, quivers, sinks, and swings.
He tries to throw a mend, and a 20- incher comes unglued. It’s thick-shouldered, tiger-striped, red-eyed, and angry, and it rockets into the air, clearing Clark’s bobbing head, and lands in a frothy splatter. Clark grins. And grins!
By the fourth day the river canyon is spectacularly rugged and close. Red and black canyon walls. Basalt ramparts. Pinnacle towers.
The bass attack in swarms. Like tiny tiger sharks—four, five, six fish, all trying to eat the same fly. My popper takes 22 fish before finally fraying off. The bass are noticeably bigger in the canyon, holding in deep pools and in small pockets seemingly too shallow to cover their backs.
Midday, protected by a horse-chewed straw hat and multiple layers of SPF 36, I’m pounding bass crazy-hot for Girdle Bugs. To cool off, I wade into the fish run every few minutes until my hat floats, then slosh back to shore for another cast. The bass don’t seem to mind these intrusions.
Chukar clucks drift from the rocks. A golden eagle is locked into an updraft, spinning silent circles in a cloudless sky, waiting for lunch to wiggle. Bighorn tracks pock the sand. A 16-incher slams the four-weight into the water, rips downstream, and I wahoo out loud.
Takeout and reality arrive together. Ignoring the no-camping designation at Clarno Access, a family is camped in the boat ramp: dogs, naked kids, coolers, plastic chairs, toys, fishing rods, shotguns, litter.
Rafts ground into sand and willows. Ecklund pauses, oars suspended, Mad John’s river water dripping off the low points. Reluctantly I clip off the remains of an abused rubber-legs and for the first time in five days break down the four-weight.
The dog yaps. I pass on shore lunch, grab a sweating bottle of strawberry soda, and cram duffel and rod into the red car. It’s been too good to screw up by overstaying. A plume of talc dust follows me out to the paved road and into the Big Empty.
Hundred-bass days. Five-hundred smallmouth for the trip, give or take.
Ecklund, you nailed it!
A full-time writer/photographer, Terry W. Sheely lives on a lake east of Seattle with his wife, Natalie, an old black Lab, and a young idiot Chesapeake. He writes for national and regional magazines, and is the author-publisher of the Washington State Fishing Guide. This is his first contribution to Gray’s.
If You Go
For big bass, plan to float in March, April, or early May. When the temperature hits 52, you’ll see more but smaller fish. Summer is triple-digit hot. Bring big hats, thick sunscreen, nylon shorts, river sandals, and polarized fly deflectors.
Several Oregon guides work John Day smallmouth with packages that range from day floats to weeklong adventures. I fish with Mah-Hah Outfitters (www.johndayriverfishing.com), and Little Creek Outfitters, (www.littlecreekoutfitters.net). Guides, shuttles, and accommodations can be lined up through Wheeler County Visitor Information, 541-763-2355. Timely information from the John Day River BLM Ranger: 541-416-6865.
This isn’t a tough river to float, and if you’ve got the gear, rafts, and know-how, it’s a great way to go. The state owns the bank to the high-water mark for 174 miles between Tumwater Falls and Kimberly, assuring public access. Whether you go it alone or book an outfitter, you need a copy of John Day River Recreation Guide. Written by an enterprising BLM river ranger, it’s the best five bucks you can spend on this trip. Copies at the Prineville BLM District: www.blm.gov/or/prineville, 541- 416-6865.
Bring three- to six-weight rods; floating, sinking tip, and intermediate lines. Fluorocarbon tippets (3X, five feet,) are an advantage with poppers or drys. You’ll want a wide assortment of foam beetles, cork poppers, blue damsels, and Chernobyl Ants in sizes 4 through 12. Bring more weighted wets than drys: Girdle Bugs, Teqillys, Woolly Buggers, Woolly Worms, Bitch Creeks, leeches, and crayfish patterns, all in size 6.