Smallmouth hotspots near the junction of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho offer DIY anglers the chance for solitude, adventure, and untold numbers of bronzebacks.
[by David Paul Williams]
WHILE THE REST OF THE GROUP DILLY-DALLIED RIGGING THEIR BOATS, I focused on getting all my boat gear arranged and strapped down. Why waste time when there were fish to be caught? In a fraction of the time it was taking my friends to do seemingly minuscule tasks, I quickly slathered sunscreen on all exposed skin, washed my hands to protect my fly line, set up my rod and tied an olive dragonfly nymph to the end of my tippet. Then it was time to get fishing.
It was late June so Oregon’s John Day River was clear from any remaining snowmelt and beginning to show signs of warming under an early summer sun, but not too warm—it was still cool enough to trigger those involuntary gasps when cold water meets warm human skin. I decided to wet my line while I waited for my cohorts and located a group of fish in just a few casts. From then on, the number of fish caught and released, at times less than a rod length away from where we equipped our boats, bordered on ridiculous.
Oregon, Washington, and Idaho righteously bear a “golden triangle” of smallmouth bass fishing opportunities—water often overlooked by anglers seeking out the region’s infamous steelhead. However, those that do take the time to explore the area are rewarded with solitude, incredible scenery, and of course, big bass. In fact, there are some who believe a Buddha-sized smallie, one that eclipses the long-held world record from Dale Hollow Lake, swims somewhere within that triangle where the combination of great habitat, sufficient forage, and an overall lack of fishing pressure will be the key to producing that fish.
John Day River
The John Day, born in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, is a true western river, dropping 9,000 feet before meeting the Columbia River on the Washington state line. With 281 miles of water unsullied by dams, it’s one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the Lower 48.
The river is named after John Day, a member of the 1811 Astor Expedition. Day gained his fifteen minutes of fame when he and a companion were robbed and stripped naked by Tenino Indians near the mouth of the river. It was tough country then and it’s tough country now as attested by the numerous ruins of homesteads, mining claims, and dirt roads that lead nowhere. Of course, that is part of the John Day’s charm.
The upper river is home to westslope cutthroat, redband, and bull trout, a modest run of spring Chinook salmon and a healthy population of steelhead. Smallmouth, first introduced in 1971, inhabit the river as high as the river’s forks above Kimberly, but the largest concentrations of fish are in the lower 175 miles. Here the river flows through a patchwork of public and private land that both limits access and provides a unique fishing experience. When the river passes Clarno Bridge, it leaves civilization and cell phone towers behind for 70 miles until it emerges at Cottonwood Bridge and Cottonwood Canyon State Park. There are nearly 30 more miles of river below Cottonwood and 75 miles above Clarno. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages those 175 miles in different segments and instituted a mandatory permit system for floaters using the river. You can download a permit from the BLM website, and while there is no lottery, the agency limits the number of permits available for trips during the height of the season between May 20th and July 10th. No permits are issued by phone though you can call the Prineville Ranger District at 541-416-6700 for assistance. The fees help maintain boat launches and river campsites. The BLM has also created an invaluable river guide, the John Day River Recreation Guide ($5), which includes details on camping spots, islands and rapids.
D-Dub’s Prickly Sculpin
HOOK: Daiichi 1730, size 4.
THREAD: Red Danville Flymaster 3/0 or 6/0.
WEIGHT: Two or three pieces of .025 lead wire lashed on top of the shank so the weight counterbalances the fly and it rides hook up in the water.
TAIL: Copper Krystal Flash.
BODY: Brown chenille.
RIB: Copper wire counter wrapped through the rabbit.
COLLAR: Brown Angora rabbit or brown-dyed red fox
FIN: Straight-cut rabbit strip. Run the hook point through the rabbit skin and tie off the rest of the material at the head.
Like other undammed, western freestones, the John Day flows vary widely depending on snowmelt and rain, and consequently so do the severity of the rapids. Clarno Rapids is a combination of huge holes with a rollicking wave train down the middle when flows are around 7,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). At 400 cfs, Clarno is low and slow enough to snag all but the lightest boats. Basalt, a high-water class III, is just another rock in the river at low water. The John Day River Recreation Guide notes recommended flows for different types of boats.
Smallmouth forage varies with the reach of the river. In the forks and the upper mainstem, John Day bass benefit from extensive insect populations of mayflies, caddis, and dragonflies, plus the occasional salmon and steelhead smolt. Down river, the insect populations become less abundant, though they are still important. Illegally introduced rusty crayfish show up below Service Creek and are a staple for the next 30 miles or so. Below Clarno, the smallmouth have likely extirpated the native signal crayfish—a void that will likely be filled by the rusty crayfish as they move downstream.
An old, late summer stomach survey revealed crayfish made up over 70 percent of a John Day bass’ diet. That’s clearly changed in the lower river as the fish’s diet now mainly consists of large aquatic insects and the fry of native forage fish including northern pikeminnow, dace, shiners, and chiselmouth. Pacific lampreys, a slender, five-inch long morsel, live throughout the system and the smallmouth pursue them with gusto. When the adult damsels and dragons start hunting smaller insects riding the water’s surface, the bass launch themselves out of the water, attempting to intercept the big bugs. The bass can’t resist small blue, brown, or olive topwater flies.
The river offers a choice of bank and wade fishing near any one of the numerous boat access areas, though many people prefer float trips, spending a day to a week on the water. Early season brings the biggest, albeit somewhat lethargic fish to hand. River traffic and catch rates ramp up as the weather and water warms—hence the limited number of permits between mid-May through June. Even when the river is running high and dark, the fish are willing to eat, they’ve simply moved to the edges or gone deep to avoid the heavy current. Once water levels drop and the weather gets really warm, the ratio of boat traffic to fish caught becomes inversely related. By July, the river shrinks to less than 400 cfs and may drop even more in the following weeks, but the fishing gets ridiculously good with the average number of caught bronzebacks reaching ‘ya gotta be kiddin’ me’ numbers. The Day is simply a river anglers need to experience.
Grande Ronde River
The Grande Ronde emerges from Oregon’s Elkhorn Mountains and runs northeast, growing with the added flows of the Wallowa and Wenaha rivers. It snakes mostly eastward another 80 miles through the ancient lava flows of the Columbia River Basalt Group before emptying into the Snake River just upstream of the Heller Bar access.