Kayak Canyon Bassin' E-mail
Written by Allen Bushnell   
Monday, 15 July 2013 00:00

Kayak Fishing Magazine’s staff went to town last week. Old Town, that is, to celebrate the new and innovative Predator Kayak. KFM joined some Johnson Outdoors Watercraft Pro Staffers for a Predator “trial by fire,” wherein the kayak was to be put through its designated paces, and maybe push it just a bit further. The adventure site would be nearly 50 miles of Eastern Oregon’s high-desert John Day River Canyon. Remote and rugged, the John Day River is estimated to hold up to 4000 smallmouth bass per mile, making it a perfect testing ground for the new Predator.

(We were honored to have Jason Arnold, reknowned fishing/underwater/sports photographer along for this adventure. All images below are from Arnold, and lots more available at www.jasonarnoldphoto.com )

FIN 4779 copy

Conceived and designed to be a “fish catching machine,” Old Town convened a collaboration of Pro Staff, Sales and Marketing, Research and Development and most important, fishermen from all areas of the US to conceptualize this fishing platform. Designed to be a super-stable, stand-up sight fishing craft, Old Town incorporated a full-length flat deck, multiple configuration “Element Seating System” and a low profile Mod Pod and clicklock front storage hatch. Other design extras include the practical mounting plates for equipment (no more holes in your boat), horizontal rod holders with tip protection on the bow, paddle placement notches on the gunnels, a stand-up assist strap and one-way draining scupper plugs. 

But, would it work on the John Day River that contains an endless series of switchback turns, Class II rapids, shallow cobblestone sideways falls, forbidding basalt walls and mid-stream boulders (LOTS of mid-stream boulders)? The short answer is, yeah, it pretty much does.

Descending from the mile-high plateau that is Oregon’s “high desert,” we dropped down a gravel road nearly 1000 feet to reach the river put-in. The comfortable breezes above were absent at water level. Temps were in the 90’s and destined to get hotter as our trip progressed. Seven brand-new Predators, outfitted the night before with an array of Scotty rod holders, camera mounts and paddle holders, waited on the bank for packing. Once everyone was shuttled to the spot and packed all the drybags and gear, we took off into the current.

JAU 9166 copy FIN 4687 copy JAU 9412 copy

Within a quarter mile were the first series of rapids. Being a saltwater fisherman, I’m well experienced with breaking waves, big chop and ocean currents, but rapids and river currents are rather new to me. Daunted but not delayed, I was first to launch into the main “V” of current at the top of the run. An exhilarating 7 seconds later my bow was swinging around in the inside eddy. Hmm, may as well stop and fish a bit. As I proceeded to gleefully catch fish after fish, everyone else swept by me.

Scott Brenneman and Mark Veary, Johnson Outdoors Watercraft Pro Staff, negotiated the rapids with hoots and hollers, as did KFM Publisher Allen Sansano. Brian Steves, the final Johnson Outdoors Watercraft Pro Staff on this trip sailed by while STANDING UP!  After seeing my colleagues casually disappear downstream I confidently re-launched into the current, immediately hit a boulder, dropped my upstream rail and took a swim. This was not a statement about the Predator, rather it speaks to my non-existent river skills, skills I'd be quick to pick up over the course of the next four days.

Luckily Mark Veary hiked upstream looking for me some 20 minutes later. “I saw an orange float by and figured Bushy might need some help.” A true waterman, Veary helped collect scattered floating gear, and even dove the rapids, locating my favorite spinning rod mid-stream. Then he proceeded to give me a clinic on river-running for the remainder of the day. By day two, I was approaching and running somewhat technical rapids with renewed confidence (tempered with a bit of humility).

JAU 9336 copy JAU 9360 copy  

The river is a series of rapids separated by slower current sections. Huge basalt column cliffs rise on either side, softened by rounded tops and plateaus. The smallmouth bass bite on this  river can only be described as incredible. Estimated by the Oregon Department of Fish and  Game as holding up to 4000 fish per mile, the smallmouth are not indigenous but rather a result of planting 80 smallies in 1971.

Catching fish after fish was the rule, whether using soft plastics, trout spinners, crankbaits or even bare 1/8 ounce jigheads! Though no one of us could keep an accurate count due to extreme fishing over-excitement, we each easily caught over 200 fish per day, and maybe even pushed the 300 mark.

Our four-day trip took on a pattern of fishing slow sections, deep rockwall holes and eddies in groups of two or three, punctuated by running the fast sections every half-mile or so. Some of the rapids were approaching the Class Three level- “Has boulders and you CAN get hurt.” No one had any mishaps beyond my first-day debacle. 

Around noon we’d find a shady spot and group up for food and a little ‘leg-time.” No one spent much time on the bank however, and usually we were fishing and eating the salami sandwich simultaneously. In the evening, our support raft would pull out at one of the many campsites along the river, and we would set up the tents, enjoy dinner and camaraderie, maybe smoke a cigar or have a cocktail and, yes, fish.

JAU 9548 copy   JAU 9513 copy

The Old Town Predators more than proved their worth on this trip. A bit heavy at 72 pounds, once in the water the Predator is smooth, a reasonably fast paddler, comfortable and oh-so-stable. Even I tried some ‘stand up’ on this kayak, and I’m not commonly known for my good balance. The other anglers all included stand-up fishing or paddling and even rapid-running in the stand up position as a regular stance in their daily enjoyment. Storage space proved quite sufficient for a multi-day trip, with plenty of inside space and a capacious tankwell for drybags and other assorted gear.

Seating on the Predator is a dream, very comfortable for all-day paddling and fishing. I was surprised to learn on day two that the high seating position not only afforded me a better fishing view, but also assisted me with negotiating the rapids. This yak is so stable that I actually used the higher center of gravity of the high seating position to more easily tilt the yak while dealing with currents, turns, and those nasty shallow sideways cobblestone sweeping chute entries, with no fear whatsoever of capsizing. Initial stability is rock solid, and secondary stability stops any roll immediately. 

As the days progressed we started to get the fishing dialed in. We found the smallmouth bite slowed in the grey light of evening, as well as first light of morning. It seems they need a little sun on the water to go on the chew. These fish were usually super-aggressive, perhaps a result of a large population and competition for food source. There seems to be a lot of food available for on the river, especially of the insect variety. Crawdads and frogs/tadpoles are also abundant on the John Day and likely account for the great success using plastics such as Brush Hogs, flukes, worms and small swimbaits.

JAU 9424 copy FIN 4713

One afternoon Sansano and I had the good fortune to run into an incredible top-water bite on a reedy slow section of frogwater. Using Fire Tiger patterned poppers, we howled as fish after fish literally mobbed our lures, often the moment they hit the surface. There is just something special about watching a surface strike, even when they miss the hook. Most of our fish on this trip were in the 12-inch range, but everyone landed a few 13 or 14 inchers, and Brian Steves took the jackpot with a 15-inch smallie caught on a white fluke in a deep spot near a basalt wall on day three.

Even when not fishing, running the John Day River is like being in Wonderland. The variety of wildlife is incredible. In what essentially is a desert landscape, we saw bighorn sheep, river otters, golden eagles, chukkar game birds and Canadian geese. Also present in the area, but thankfully NOT seen by us except their footprints, are mountain lions, black bears and lots of rattlesnakes. The river provided an occasional catfish up to 18 inches, and hosts a good run of steelhead in the fall and winter. It is said to contain brown trout as well as redband trout, though we did not catch or see any trout on this trip. Perhaps further upriver, where the water is cooler?  Maybe a return trip is in order to explore what else the John Day has to offer. If so, the Old Town Predator will be one of the first kayaks we call to action.

For more information on logistics for a John Day River trip, please click here.

To see more on what KFM Editor Allen Bushnell and KFM Publisher Allen Sansano think of the Old Town Predator, please click here.

All photos by Jason Arnold www.jasonarnoldphoto.com

 

 

 

 

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