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Al Agnew

John Day part 2

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It was mid-afternoon when we made it through the Clarno Rapids, and we still had 4 miles to go to the first campsite.  The "gravel" bars on the John Day are rock bars, not conducive to camping on, so there are more or less designated campsites, mainly spots on the banks a bit above gravel bar level where there is flat ground and a few juniper trees for shade.  Most are marked on the guidebooks we had, and I'd also marked them on my complete set of topo maps for this stretch of river.

But after making it through the one spot that really worried us, we just had to rig up the rods and start fishing.  It was also nice that the wind hadn't risen.  Almost every day I'd ever been on the river, the wind had come up sometime during the day, and it invariably blew upstream, making fishing much more difficult.

The John Day pretty much has one predator fish during the warm weather months--smallmouth.  Smallies were stocked in the river many years ago, and if you were drawing up the perfect smallmouth river, you wouldn't have to use your imagination, you'd just copy the John Day.  It's a riffle/pool river, the riffles fast and dropping sharply to provide more oxygen during hot weather when the river's temperatures reach the upper 70s and lower 80s, the pools long stretches of gentle current swirling around boulders of all sizes, anywhere from a foot deep to too deep to see the bottom.  The water visibility was about 4 feet with a beautiful green color.  Crayfish live in the John Day, and lots of aquatic insects, as well as juvenile fallfish, the adults of which look like giant creek chubs.  The state of Oregon used to value the smallmouth fishery to the extent of at least putting on a 10 fish limit, but in recent years they've decided the smallmouth are bad for the baby steelhead and salmon that hatch out in the river in the late autumn and early spring, so they have removed all limits on smallies; you can keep as many as you care to clean.  I had been uneasy about that, fearing that the removal of the limits would hurt the smallmouth fishing.  So I was anxious to start casting to find out.

First cast with a spinnerbait...strike, miss, strike, miss, strike, miss...and as the lure neared the Water Master I saw a wolf pack of at least a half dozen 6-7 inch smallmouth following it, swiping at it, which is what I'd been feeling.  And that, my friends, would be how the whole trip went.  There are literally MILLIONS of smallmouth in the John Day.  They were everywhere.  Cast into shallow water, and you'd get a strike.  Cast into the middle of the deep pools and you'd get a strike.  Cast along the gravel bars, on in pockets in the rapids.  It didn't matter.  The problem is, nearly all those fish are less than 12 inches.  At one point, in mediocre water, I counted how many casts out of 200 that I made that DIDN'T get at least one fish swiping at the spinnerbait.  Only 37.  And of those, most had one of those packs of little ones following it.  If you just didn't cast randomly and picked a little bit better spots to make your casts, I have no doubt that you'd get a strike on every cast.

There seemed to be five year classes represented in those fish.  There were inch long fry in the shallows, young of this year.  There were four inchers cruising all through the shallower water, one year old fish.  Then those 6-7 inchers, which would swarm the lure and seemed to be just solid masses along the banks.  Then 9-10 inchers that actually got hooked constantly, also along the banks but also everywhere else, including cruising the middle of the river.  And finally, a whole lot of 11-12 inchers, and they were strong fish, strong enough that you'd think when you hooked one that it must be a pretty good fish.  But fish larger than that were scarce.  That first afternoon, I believe I caught maybe a half dozen fish between 13 and 15 inches.  The other guys, using various lures, had similar experiences, with Ken reporting he'd caught a single 16 incher.  In that four mile stretch, however, I ended up catching 67 smallies, Ken said he had 50 plus, and the other two guys had in the 40s.  They were mainly using curly tail grubs on jig heads.  I tried a lot of stuff, including topwaters, my homemade crankbait, and several spinnerbaits, and it didn't matter what I threw, the results were the same.  At first I thought that surely all you'd have to do was keep casting to the better looking spots and you'd catch some bigger fish among all the little ones, but it just didn't seem to be happening.

We found the campsite about 7 PM, plenty of time to set up tents and cook some supper.  My responsibility for the trip had been to provide supper.  We had a big freeze dryer, and Mary had cooked up meals for us all and freeze-dried them, so all I needed to do was boil water to reconstitute them, dump them in a big pot, and pour enough water to make them the proper consistency.  This first night we had chili.

There were no insects, and the weather was delightfully cool as the sun went down, so we could have slept under the stars, but we all opted to put up our tents without the rain flies.DSCF8092.jpg

The next morning we got a fairly early start after a quick breakfast, anxious to start fishing.  Surely we'd catch some bigger fish this day.  And it started out well for Ken, who quickly caught a 17.5 incher.  But then it was back to the little ones.

The river had started out in a fairly shallow, wide canyon:DSCF8083.jpg

But it was gradually digging deeper into the landscape.  There were many steep, sharp dropping little rapids that made for interesting maneuvers to avoid the rocks:DSCF8088.jpg

And it was beginning to show the basalt cliffs for which the John Day is famous:DSCF8084.jpg

As it carved ever-deeper into the high desert plateau:DSCF8089.jpg

We passed the mouth of Butte Creek, which is the spot where I'd always put in on the guided trips, and we knew that Basalt Rapid, the only other rated rapid on this stretch, would be coming up soon.  I remembered Basalt from the other trips as a sharp but open drop with much of the water crashing against a couple huge boulders just below, not particularly difficult to run.  It's rated class 3, but that's in higher water levels.  It wasn't much of a problem at this level:DSCF8086.jpg

 

There were other "riffles" that actually were more of a problem.  Often the river would shallow out over a very wide flat approaching the riffle, and then most of the water would funnel into a very narrow trough as it curved along a bank, with big boulders strewn throughout the trough that required a lot of quick maneuvers.  I had no problem with the Water Master; it was made for this kind of water.  But the bigger rafts were more difficult to negotiate those very fast and narrow gaps.  Still, the guys knew what they were doing and we had no mishaps.  And so the days went.  We passed Thirtymile Creek, where some outfitters put in these days for 42 more miles to the take-out.  Both Butte Creek and Thirtymile Creek require 25 to 30 miles of rough dirt road, almost 4WD territory, to get to the river, and they aren't much fun.  After Thirtymile Creek, where there is a single cabin close to the river, there would no more signs of civilization whatsoever for the next 40 miles.DSCF8093.jpgDSCF8095.jpgDSCF8105.jpg

John and I had been eyeing the occasional places where you could climb to at least the lower "rim" of the canyon; there was also a higher rim, and some of the bluffs on the outside of bends went all the way up to that higher rim, more than 1800 feet above the river.  So one night we were camped at a spot where we could climb a steep, grassy, rocky canyon-side, and we decided to do it:

DSCF8098.jpgDSCF8101.jpgDSCF8103.jpg

You can see the tents as the tiny white dots close to the river in the first picture.  We reached the lower rim, almost a thousand feet above the river, where the views of the John Day winding down its canyon were spectacular.

The fishing?  Well, it stayed the same. We tried everything we could think of to catch fewer little ones and maybe more bigger ones.  On the third day, Ken had found one big fish, a beautiful 19.5 incher, and had hooked and lost another that was at least that big, so we knew there were a few in there.  But we just couldn't figure out how to catch them...mainly, how to keep the little ones off so the bigger fish could get to our lures.  We tried the biggest lures we had, and caught little ones.  We tried fishing only the deeper water and caught little ones.  Nothing seemed to work.  But, on the other hand, it's difficult to complain too much when you're catching 200 or more fish per day.  And sometimes the scenery just overwhelmed us and we forgot about fishing for a while:DSCF8117.jpgDSCF8109.jpgDSCF8110.jpgDSCF8116.jpg

On the fifth day, I was drifting along a sheer basalt cliff, water who knows how deep, desultorily throwing a spinnerbait, when it just stopped dead.  I set the hook, and shouted "Finally!"  The others watched me fight the fish and finally lift it in triumph, a heavy 20 inch smallmouth!DSCF8114.jpg

A half mile downstream I caught a 17 incher, and then a 16 incher.  Were we finally going to get into bigger fish?  Nope.  That was it for the big fish.

We had planned the trip for seven days, but the wind had other plans.  Some days the wind would come up early, and we'd struggle to row against it and make the miles.  Other days it would stay mostly calm, and we'd just keep drifting and fishing, hoping to get ahead of schedule in case the wind came up.  And somehow on the fifth night we found ourselves only 12 miles above the bridge at Cottonwood Canyon.  We had had terrific fishing, spectacular scenery, fun rapids.  We'd seen bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and mule deer.  But we'd also gone five days without a cold drink.  We'd fought the wind; one night it had been cold, down into the 40s, with a hard north wind much of the night, but mostly the nights had been comfortable; yet we were getting a little tired of sleeping on the ground.  Our shuttler had said he'd take the vehicle down to the take-out the afternoon of the sixth day just in case we wanted to take out early.  So we decided that night would be our last.

Two miles above the take-out, we encountered the first signs of humanity we'd seen in 42 miles, a big power line and a couple of windmills atop the plateau that were visible from the river:DSCF8117.jpg

And a mile above the bridge, we came upon an actual human, a guy fishing from a little pontoon boat who had come up from the access.  And then we were pulling into the sandy ramp beneath the bridge, deflating the rafts, and piling everything into the truck with visions of cold drinks in our heads.  All in all it was a great trip, and we had to wonder whether in three or four years those five terrific year classes we'd been catching would be far bigger.  We were already making plans to come back then.  

We're all old farts.  I'll be nearly 70 in three years, the others close to the same.  But we did it this time, and maybe we'll do it again.

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Al, you have a knack for romanticizing our collective passion in a manner that few of us are equipped to proffer. Beautiful story and great pictures. The John Day is new to me but now on my radar. Thanks for sharing, and congrats on what appears to be a wonderful experience. 

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A few other notes on the fishing...

I caught an even 200 fish the second day, and Ken caught about the same.  Doug was rowing that day so he "only" caught about 100.  Ken kept counting his fish...he and Doug were alternating rowing duties so there were some days he didn't catch nearly as many, but he ended up with 800 fish caught during the trip.  When he caught his 800th fish early on the last day, he put down his rod and just rowed.  I didn't keep track of my numbers after that second day, because I decided to bend the barbs down on every lure I was using and give a lot of slack line to every small fish I hooked, because I was getting tired of unhooking them.  So I only boated maybe a third of those I hooked from then on.  Had I been trying to keep them on the hook, I have no doubt I would have boated close to a thousand fish over the trip.

To show you how thick they were, one hot day when we stopped for lunch, Ken just sat down in the river next to the raft, with his rod.  He could only cast about halfway across the river, and all the water he could reach was less than three feet deep and just a flat, cobble bottom with slow current.  And he sat there and caught more than 20 smallmouth.  The numbers of smallies in this river is just incredible.

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I use to fish with Wayne on here before he died, R.I.P. and he used to live in Oregon and told me many stories of fishing the river. Told me basically what you reported, that there were more smallies in there than you could shack a stick at! He said you basically had to have a pontoon or similar water craft to float and the wind was brutal. Very isolated as well. Great report.

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10 hours ago, Quillback said:

Nice trip for sure.  Hear or see any chukkar?  There has to be some there, that would be a pretty neat bird hunting trip/float also.  Might be some quail around in the brush too.

Yep, lots of chukar...hard to see but noisy!  Also saw what appeared to be some kind of partridge...haven't looked it up to see what it was.  We also saw a lot of bighorn sheep on the canyon walls and occasionally down at the river.  Mule deer.  There were signs of beaver though we didn't see any.  Saw a ferruginous hawk, which was very cool...I think it's the first one I've ever seen.  One immature golden eagle...I was surprised there were no bald eagles, but there were ospreys.  And great blue herons.

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57 minutes ago, Al Agnew said:

Yep, lots of chukar...hard to see but noisy!  Also saw what appeared to be some kind of partridge...haven't looked it up to see what it was.  We also saw a lot of bighorn sheep on the canyon walls and occasionally down at the river.  Mule deer.  There were signs of beaver though we didn't see any.  Saw a ferruginous hawk, which was very cool...I think it's the first one I've ever seen.  One immature golden eagle...I was surprised there were no bald eagles, but there were ospreys.  And great blue herons.

WOW !  sounds awesome !

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