Oregon’s John Day River is one of the premier smallmouth bass fishing rivers in the Northwest, if not in the entire country. What many anglers don’t know, though, is the John Day is a pretty good steelhead river, too.
Last week my sons Kyle and Kevin and I joined well-known John Day River guide Steve Fleming of Mah-Hah Outfitters for a beautiful outing on the river. And while the fishing wasn’t red hot, we got a taste of what the steelhead fishing can be like.
“It’s estimated that we get a run of about 15,000 steelhead up the river,” Fleming said as he pushed and pulled on the oars of his fiberglass drift boat to keep us from bumping rocks. “They are almost all native fish.”
Fleming and his clients will catch an occasional hatchery fish, but since none are put into the John Day as smolts, the hatchery fish that do show up in the catch are adults that have strayed from other Columbia River tributaries.
What was unbelievable to us, beside the wildlife and magnificent scenery, was we were the only anglers on the water on this particular Saturday. Fleming said it’s pretty common for him to have the river to himself throughout much of the fall. Even though it is prime time for the summer steelhead to be making their way up the river, most anglers are either fishing elsewhere, or are busy in other outdoor pursuits such as hunting.
“Once the deer and elk seasons start, we rarely see any other boats or anglers on the river,” the youthful 65-year-old guide said.
He isn’t complaining. It is pretty nice to have your own private steelhead river.
While there are ample bank angling opportunities on the John Day, on this day we drifted the river. We put in at the Cottonwood Campground, about 15 miles east of Wasco, starting at 42 miles above the mouth of the river and drifting 11 miles downstream. And even though we were fishing in early December, the moderate temperatures made the day very pleasant.
That’s not always the case, however.
“Last year I had trips booked for three days starting Dec. 7, but I had to cancel because the river basically froze over,” Fleming explained. “It gets to be a bit of a gamble this time of year.”
Normally, he said, the best time to fish the section of the river we fished would be during late October and November.
“We had a few double-digit days earlier this year,” he said. “And lots of days were we landed seven or eight fish.”
While we only caught one nice steelhead on our day of fishing, we did have some other chances. We lost one fish and had two other good take-downs.
Depending on water flows, Fleming will fish a variety of ways for the steelhead on the John Day. When the water flows are at 700 cubic feet per second, there is enough of a flow to back-troll plugs. The day we fished, water flows were lower, at 500 cfs, so we mostly fished with floats and jigs or bait. And we cast and retrieved some plugs and spoons. Our hits all came on floats and bait and quarter-ounce Maxi Jigs.
Flycasters can get in on the John Day steelhead fishing, too, Fleming said. As we drifted along he pointed out several spots where his clients had caught steelhead on spey rods and other fly gear.
Depending on the weather and water temperatures during December and January, the river pretty much shuts down. Later in January Fleming will again start running trips some 70-80 miles further upstream where the steelhead are congregating before they move up the smaller tributaries to spawn.
In later February and into March he will actually run combo trips during which his clients fish for steelhead early in the day, then switch over to trophy smallmouth bass as the water temperatures warm. It’s a unique combination, to say the least, because most steelhead anglers are not bass anglers and vice versa.
From personal experience, I can tell you catching a 6-pound smallmouth bass can be every bit as exhilarating as hooking and landing a 6-pound steelhead. And when you can do both in the same day, that’s an experience that very few anglers anywhere get to enjoy.
The John Day River is kind of an unknown to much of the steelheading world. But in the late fall and into the winter, when there are not many other opportunities around, more and more steelhead anglers are learning the well-known Oregon bass river is a pretty good steelhead stream, too.