John Day River Trip Logistics E-mail
Monday, 15 July 2013 00:00

John Day River Access Mainstem

The John Day River in north-central Oregon is the third longest undammed river in the contiguous United States. Designated a National “Wild and Scenic River,” the John Day spans 281 miles. 172 miles of the river are floatable. In 1971, smallmouth bass were introduced into the river. Since that time the population has flourished, with reports of population densities anywhere from 1000 to 4000 smallmouth per river mile, making it one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries on the west coast.

Since the John Day is undammed, the water levels are sensitive to runoff. Peak season occurrs in the spring, coinciding with spring runoff. Canoes and kayaks can effectively run the river in as little as 300 cubic feet per second (cfps). By mid-July, the river normally drops below this level. The USGS reports the river levels here, http://waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?14046500.

JohnDayScenery Most of the run is non-technical although there are a few rapids of which one must be wary. Bigger fish are caught earlier in the season (Mar-Apr). Heading into May and June the water temperature warms up and the smaller fish become more active. It is not unusual to catch 100+ fish in a day at this time of the year; however, many will be less than 12" with the occasional larger fish to keep things interesting. The little fish are very aggressive at this time and you can often see them beating out the larger fish to the lure.

The Bureau of Land Management maintains a website on the John Day River here, http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/johnday/. Permits are required to run the river, available via the BLM site. In 2013 permits were free and unlimited, but launch limits are expected to resume in 2014. The BLM also sells a useful guidebook, the 2005 John Day River Recreation Guide, available for purchase at https://www.blm.gov/or/permit/info/mapsandbooks.  It is especially useful as it identifies potential campsites. There can be competition for popular campsites, so it is good to identify alternatives. Camping is in unimproved campsites and you are required to pack out all waste, including human excrement, so plan accordingly.

Service Creek Stage Shop also has great info on floating the John Day here, http://www.servicecreek.com/rafts-shuttles/rafting-the-john-day-river/. They provide shuttle service should you so desire. KFM recently took a trip down the John Day from Thirty Mile to Cottonwood. Thirty-Mile is a private put-in.  More information on 30-Mile can be found here, http://www.condonchamber.org/RattrayRanches.htm

Bighorn Sheep This run is part of the lower stretch of the river that flows through magnificent canyon land. The fishing is reportedly better in this section of the river. At 44 miles long, this stretch can be done in 3 days, dependent on flow. Figure that the river will take you about 1 mph for each 1000 cfps. And paddling will make up the rest. At times, the wind did come up, and always seemed to blow upriver, so be prepared for a little extra paddling should such conditions arise. We took four days to do this float so we could spend more time fishing. The scenery did not disappoint, nor did the wildlife with bighorn sheep sightings being common, in addition to deer, chukar, and waterfowl. Bullfrogs chirping over the sound of rushing water put us to bed each night.

Standard tackle for fishing the John Day are 3-4" plastic grubs fished on a jighead, or a variety of plastic worms, flukes, and creature/craw type baits rigged in many of the standard ways. On our recent trip, KFM got to try out Big Hammer Salt Shaker and Ringer Worms. The Salt Shakers were particularly effective rigged Carolina style while the Ringer Worms worked well on 1/8 ounce round jigheads. Chartreuse seems to be a popular color as we saw many fishermen working this color, although we also found success with various shades of browns and reds (think crawfish and earthworm) as well as as white and black (with various glitter undertones). Actually almost any color seemed to work at times. We fished the plastics in the side eddies, deeper runs, and frog water.

BigHammerSaltShakerWorm copy

In the shallower runs with a little more water flow, tossing mini-cranks in crawdad colors (particularly black/gold/orange) work well, although side drifting the plastics also proved effective. In addition, we would often mix things up with small poppers in firetiger colors. Don't be afraid to work the top-water, even at mid-day. In fact, on our trip we noticed a definite slowdown to the bite in the lower light condition first thing in the morning and later in the evening. It seems the bass wanted a little bit of sunshine to get them active. Fly fishermen have great success on this river too. Top water poppers (again firetiger) work well, as do terrestrial imitations such as damselflies, grasshoppers and beetles. Judging from the amount of spent exoskeletons visible on the cliffs, stoneflies of various life stages would also prove effective.

The John Day River float is a trip that any adventurous fisherman should consider. In particular the isolation that that canyonland section of the river offers, provides a true back country experience, just the thing to escape the modern world for a few days of non-stop smallmouth bass action.

JohnDayFish

 

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