Main Source: Steve Fleming, Mah-Hah Outfitters
The John Day River in northeastern Oregon is by many avid bass anglers’ estimation one of the best places to fish for smallmouth in the world. The smallies on the sunny side of the state are both numerous and large.
Fleming’s records through the years show that while the highest numbers of bass are landed during the summer months, some 85 percent of the really big bass will be caught between March and mid-May, when the smaller “dinks” are inactive in cooler water.
Many of Fleming’s customers have landed bass over 20 inches or caught 100 or more bass in a single day. Occasionally a client will catch 200.
The John Day flows into the Columbia River just east of the small town of Rufus, a community on Interstate 84 between The Dalles and Arlington.
While the mouth section (backed up by the dammed-up Columbia to form the John Day Arm) has its own fishery, the most accessible stretch of free-flowing smallmouth water upstream is roughly a four-hour drive from the Portland area.
The John Day, in ODFW’s Northeast Zone, is open for bass angling all year from the falls up to the North Fork, the area where fishing for adipose fin-clipped steelhead also is legal all year.
Note in the regulations that there is a seasonal fishing closures for some species near Tumwater Falls, and bass fishing is open in the North Fork below Indian Creek whenever steelhead fishing is open there.
Starting in the 2016 season, the ODFW removed all bag limits for bass on a river that once had a slot limit to encourage a trophy fishery for this introduced species.
Many bass anglers continue to practice catch and release fishing to help maintain this excellent fishery.
Fleming suggests that anglers who want to keep a few bass for dinner to keep fish that are 10 inches or under.
These smaller fish aren’t yet breeding age, so keeping them has a lesser impact on the bass population. Also, these smaller fish are simply tastier.
Consult the current Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations booklet for additional fishing regulations and newer rules in the John Day system.
Know Before You Go
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administrates a launch permit program on part of the John Day. For more information about the requirement in getting a permit, click here.
Fleming highly recommends anglers obtain a John Day River Recreation Guide — Kimberly to Tumwater Falls available for purchase by mail through BLM’s Prineville District Office.
Also, be sure to check the river flow before your trip. Bass fishing is best when the river flow is under 7,000 cubic feet per second and dropping or stable.
Higher flows or a river flow that is increasing by more than 1,000 cfs per day have too much current and muddy water for good angling.
Also, the rapids near Clarno can be dangerous to boaters at any level over 5,000 cfs. Flows can increase rapidly with snowmelt at times during the spring.
When to Catch – Early Season
Fleming starts booking spring trips March 1, when the water can be in the mid-30s up into the 40s. At this time of the year, clients don’t tend to land a lot of fish but most will be larger fish and some often are “big old toads,” he said.
In the colder water, only the large breeding fish are active. This is about 10 percent of all bass, Fleming said.
Typically, the spring lunker season holds up until the water temperature reaches 52 degrees in about the middle of May.
Once that happens, the large numbers of smaller fish become active and strike everything that moves, and catching the larger ones is harder to do.
Where to Catch in Spring
Don’t bother fishing water with any significant current. These smallmouth like calm water, so stick to the back eddies and slow water.
Bass often feed just off the current line, staying just on the slow side of the boundary and ambushing passing prey.
As for locations, smallmouth bass are present in the John Day in good numbers from the mouth at the Columbia River (and in the Columbia itself) well up to Kimberly and some beyond.
For the free-flowing section above Tumwater Falls, boaters can put in at Kimberly, Spray, Service Creek, Twickenham and Clarno (taking out at the Cottonwood Bridge on Highway 206). There is a newish state park at Cottonwood Canyon.
Some of those stretches, especially the 71 river miles between Clarno and Cottonwood, are multiple-day trips. Study your river guide to choose the appropriate drift.
Bank anglers will find by far the best access to the main river from where Highway 207 joins Highway 19 and on upstream.
Smallmouth bass also are in the smaller North Fork, and there is plentiful access there for bank anglers there from the mouth up to Monument.
How to Catch in the Spring
Fleming’s top tip for catching early season smallmouth bass on the John Day River is simple: Slow it down!
Using that old conundrum, if Fleming wanted to catch smallmouth on the John Day all day long but could only choose one lure, it would be Outlaw Baits’ Ripple Worm in black.
“It definitely is our go-to bait,” he said of the 5-inch worm. “The tail action on that thing works really well.”
Since Fleming isn’t limited to one color, he also makes sure he’s well-stocked with colors such as white, pumpkin, green pumpkin, mocha, watermelon, and others.
Bass can be surprisingly picky about color some days, and what worked before may bomb the next trip.
Ripple Tails can be fished many ways.
Fleming’s favorite is the simple approach, with a 1/16 up to ¼-ounce jig head (typically with sizes 4 to 3/0 hooks).
Snip the head of the soft bait down a little to match the hook size. The bend of the hook should emerge just above the tail – that’s cutting about ¾ of an inch or so from the bait to match a typical jig head.
Tube baits are another good spring choice, rigged on a quarter-ounce jig head. Try fishing these in cool water with very little movement – give it three subtle shakes about every 10 seconds.
Soft plastics also catch fish rigged Carolina, Texas or split-shot styles, fished with a very slow lift-and-drop retrieve.
For people who like to fish a bit faster, crankbaits and spinners certainly can catch bass during the spring.
In recent years, Fleming has been using Willamette Weapon Lures, which are specially painted to match bass forage species.
A sinking Rapala, in a size CD7 (count-down version), is another good choice, but don’t actually let it sink before retrieving.
The John Day is shallow, and letting that lure sink will cost your tackle budget plenty.
Try throwing a crankbait into the current side of a break, reeling toward the slack water. By the time the lure comes out of the flow, it will be working just right when it encounters bass hunting just outside the current.
A simple trick Fleming uses for the Rapala-style lures is to connect them directly to an inexpensive Size 10 or 12 Danielson snap swivel. This swivel’s snap shape tends to lock the lure in the right position more than a rounder snap would.
Rattling spinners such as the Blue Fox and Worden’s Sonic Rooster Tail also work well. Various colors are more effective at times, with black probably the most versatile.
Fleming fishes the Blue Fox directly off one of the Danielson snap swivels, but he usually fishes the other spinners about 10 inches below a barrel swivel tied into his leader.
In recent years, after bluegill took hold on the John Day and joined the smallmouth’s menu, spinnerbaits work well where they hadn’t before.
The stretch from Kimberly to Clarno seems to have the highest population of bluegill at this writing.
For conventional rigs, Fleming typically spools a 10-pound P-Line CXX-X mainline and uses an 10-pound P-Line leader.
In recent years, Fleming and friends have been experimenting with center-pin fishing (a mooching technique) in cold water.
The center-pin tactic, pioneered in Europe long ago but recently gaining popularity close to home with steelheaders and others, is a float-fishing form that involves a very long rod and a specialty reel with a center pin that somewhat resembles a fly reel. It provides excellent control and water coverage.
Fleming, who also fishes for steelhead on the John Day and has conducted seminars on center-pin fishing, goes after smallmouth with a 1/16th ounce jig head tied with feathers. (Punisher Lures makes Fleming’s favorite.)
Give the jig a little action with a shaking technique – three subtle shakes of the bobber, then wait.
Fish usually take the jig right after the shake, but it’s so slight it barely bobs the float and then moves it slightly sideways.
For fly-fishing purists, Fleming also has long looked for a fly that would work in colder water, but in past years he only found consistent success after late May.
Finally, at the start of the 2010 season with much help from Jim Berl, a McKenzie River fly-fishing guide, they tested a made-up pattern (not available commercially) that consistently catches fish in early spring.
If All Else Fails
Hooking up with spring smallmouth can take a different approach with slower moving lures such as soft plastics and jigs.
If you are striking immediately with each take, you probably are pulling the lure away from the fish rather than setting the hook.
Try this: When you feel the soft take, drop the rod toward the fish a foot or two and count to three with a jig-head setup. Then set the hook.
If you are hooking the fish too deep, only count to one or two. However, if you keep missing fish, count longer. Try six seconds, or nine or more. With some worm riggings fished in cold water, it can take a full 12 seconds for that fish to get the business end of the hook in its mouth.
Steve Fleming has operated Mah-Hah Outfitters since 1989. He conducts more smallmouth trips on the John Day than anyone. He no longer does overnight trips but can help connect you to other guides for longer trips or for fly fishing specialists. In addition to smallmouth, Fleming guides for steelhead on the river and for largemouth bass on a private lake.