By Glenn May
Ever dream of a day catching a bunch of nice-sized smallmouth bass? Enhance that dream by floating in a drift boat down the scenic John Day River, having a delicious Dutch-oven lunch and seeing lots of wildlife. It doesn't have to be a dream. I had this experience in mid-April with Mah-Hah Outfitters out of Fossil, Oregon.
The gorgeous John Day River in Oregon remains the longest unfettered and un-dammed river in the United States. Estimated to have 1,000 fish per mile, it is also one of the top smallmouth bass fisheries in the country, based on quantity and quality of fish caught. In the summer, some people have caught 100, 200, even 300 bass a day! For this reason alone, I was looking forward to the trip. But this was early spring, and conditions were less than optimal.
I have to admit, when I woke up to snow on the ground and sub-freezing temperatures, I was skeptical we were going to catch any fish at all. During a delightful breakfast at Bridge Creek Flora Inn, I learned not only was the water level rising, but was also a chilly 40 degrees - conditions that would make any angler stay at home. But professional guide Steve Fleming, with over 30 years of experience on the John Day, knew otherwise. Two days and nearly 60 fish later, including many trophies, I was a believer.
The morning started out a little slow as we floated down the scenic river, but as the air and water temperatures warmed we began catching fish. After several casts, Fleming put craw/anise Smelly Jelly scent on our grubs. "If nothing else," Steve says, "it will cover our scent." Dozens of fish later, I knew it didn't hurt!
The process was rather simple: cast your lure to small pockets and pools along the edges of the current seam and begin your retrieve. The smallmouth typically hang out there where they have easy access to passing food. They dart into the current where strikes are quick and aggressive and they return to the slow water where they expend less energy. Steve was more than helpful in pointing out productive pockets, often piloting the boat to within perfect casting distance.
3" Yamamoto grubs in #176 color threaded onto 1/16th Slider jig heads worked best for us during the two days. Firetiger CD7 Rapala crankbaits, a proven winner for Steve, caught many of the larger fish. Lightweight rods with six-pound line provided lots of action. "The secret to the crankbaits," Steve tutors, "is using an erratic retrieve all the way back to the boat. For the grubs, it's detecting that sometimes subtle bite." Fleming also fishes topwater crankbaits, Slug-Gos, and Carolina-rigged lizards, depending on time of year and river conditions.
My largest fish was a healthy 18" smallmouth - which comes to about 3 1/2 pounds using the formula (Length x (Girth^2))/800. But it certainly wasn't the largest of the trip. Steve's clients, who were gracious enough to let me tag along with them during their adventure, caught several 19", 20" and even 21" trophies. Many clients end up catching their biggest smallmouth ever when they go fishing with Steve. How many guides do you know that will give you a long list of "trophy club" clients with their phone numbers? Steve does.
Fleming said fish 20 inches and larger are considered trophies. Lucky anglers landing these trophies are rewarded with Master Angler hats and a certificate from In-Fisherman. He usually averages one nice fish (16 inches or over) for every 3 people fishing. A typical day in the spring usually yields 15 to 30 nice-sized bass. In the late spring and summer it jumps from 50 to 100 bass a day, but the average size is smaller. As a rule if you want a trophy smallmouth, plan on fishing from late March to mid-May, and in the fall from late September through October. If you like to bird hunt, Steve offers an annual Cast-n-Blast trip in the fall.
There's no doubt I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't tell you about the mouthwatering shore lunch we had. While we were busy fishing in the morning, Steve was quietly cooking lunch in two Dutch ovens between strokes of the oars and netting our fish. By noon, we were treated to a delicious meal served on our own private table complete with tablecloth, napkins and condiments - out in the middle of the great outdoors. This is call "style"!
As we ate the juicy chicken, steamy vegetables and baked potatoes, the inevitable fishing stories began to surface. Before long, we were all laughing it up and having a great time. Meanwhile Steve and his apprentice, Skip Geer, seamlessly cleaned up and packed everything back into the boats. Soon we were drifting down the river again catching fish.
Skip is an experienced guide himself. He grew up in the area, fishing the John Day "before I could walk". He's also a guide for one of Oregon's premiere elk outfitters, and is an accomplished bird guide as well. It's obvious Steve allows the only best to work for him.
About 3 hours later we pulled ashore and were treated to a fresh, hot apple cobbler. To say it was exquisite would be an understatement! And where did the whip cream come from? This was roughing it?
The experience with Steve was truly memorable. He's an extremely talented guide who's very knowledgeable, personable, and organized. And unlike some guides, he openly dishes out fishing information without holding anything back. As I talked with him into the evening, well after the clients were gone, Steve was still telling fishing stories with as much enthusiasm as the first time he told them. It occurred to me that this man truly loves what he's doing. Guiding isn't his hobby, it's his passion.
Now if you're thinking about going there for an experience of a lifetime, don't think you have to go alone. Fossil is a place to bring the whole family. It offers an historic downtown with antique shops and museums, and a wonderful small town charm. I couldn't help but explore the scenic backroads where I saw an abundance of deer, elk, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
The area is probably best known as one of the most outstanding depositories of prehistoric fossils and geological formations on the North American continent. Among the valleys and bluffs is buried the John Day Fossil Beds National Painted hills, featuring colorful, striped badlands and petrified mudslides. The fossil beds offer an archive of ancient life ranging from six to 54 million years ago.
If you do bring your family, I'd recommend you stay at the Wilson Ranch Retreat (1-541-763-2227) for a truly unique experience. Not only is the newly refurbished bed & breakfast ranch house completely decorated with a stylish Western flare, it's also a working cattle and hay ranch offering cattle drives, branding, and horseback riding for the entire family. Phil and Nancy Wilson, who run the place, are a riot and will make you feel right at home the moment you arrive.
And if you wish to stay in town, you can't beat the Bridge Creek Flora Inn Bed and Breakfast (1-541-763-2355). I guess it's the small-town charm that make owners Lyn and Mike Craig so appealing. They're a friendly couple who make you feel like long-time friends. And their outstanding food makes it difficult to leave!
Make plans to experience this trip. Steve is already booking trips for next year. The bass are abundant and huge, the landscape is breathtaking, and the townspeople are friendly. Top-rated guides and excellent fishing await you!
For complete, detailed information regarding lodging, trip planning, river fishing tips and more information about the area, please see All We Know.