LIFE ON THE JOHN DAY
STEELHEAD TROUT By ChriS Santella
For me, the John Day represents two vastly different
fishing experiences. As the water begins to warm in late
May, the river’s smallmouth bass spring to life. Bass were
surreptitiously introduced to the river in 1971, and have
prospered. Today, the John Day is one of the best bronze-back fisheries in the West. Large numbers of fish make
for good catching; you can land up to 50 bass in a day.
Most are under 12 inches, but they deport themselves
well, often leaving the water. It’s the kind of easy, action-packed fishing that’s a perfect introduction for less experienced anglers, and a balm for seasoned anglers who’ve
been beaten down by persnickety, midge-sipping trout.
Come November, the John Day enters a distinctly different fishing season. Warmth gives way to bone-chilling
cold as you wade hip deep in water that might be in the
30s. Constant catching is replaced by infinite casting with
very rare bites. Such is the world of fly-fishing for steelhead.
But aficionados agree that if and when the grab does come
as the fly swings across the current, everything else fades
away. For steelheaders, life starts with the tug!
The John Day supports the largest run of wild steelhead in the Lower 48. No hatchery fish are released
in the system; yet in a good year, more than 10,000
fish return (some stray hatchery fish show up as well).
Though it still boasts robust steelhead runs, the John
Day has faced challenges. Cattle grazing in riparian
zones along the lower river has eroded stream banks,
silting up spawning habitat and killing trees that serve
to shade and cool the river. A group called Western
Rivers Conservancy recently stepped in to help protect
a significant swatch of lower river habitat.
“An 8,000-acre property became available,” said
Josh Kling, WRC’s Assistant Program Director, “and
we raised the funds to buy it. With the help of Oregon
Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and other
partners, we began extensive restoration work – repairing fences to keep cattle back from the main river and
Hay Creek, an important spawning tributary. We also
replanted riparian areas and removed invasive weeds.
The results are astounding. There are now willow thickets along the river banks, and beavers have moved back
in Hay Creek, creating complex aquatic habitat and
lower water temperatures.” The property was conveyed
to OPRD, and this past September it opened to the
public as Cottonwood Canyon State Park.
I often fish the John Day a few miles below Cotton wood
at an access point called Rock Creek. It’s 150 miles from
my house in Portland, but we think nothing of the drive
because there’s no traffic, and there’s a fine pub that’s a
perfect dinner stop on the way home. The pools and runs
that hold fish are spread out, so a day of fishing requires
a few miles of hiking – not an
unwelcome thing because the walk
provides a chance to warm up!
On a recent trip, a friend, Hamp,
and I had been fishless when we
crossed the river to fish a promising pool. The December sun was
falling behind the hills, and this
would be our last shot. Hamp had
had a long dry spell between fish,
and I suggested he work the heart
of the pool. I was just settling into
my casting routine when Hamp
let out a whoop and I turned to
see his Spey rod bent double. The
fish – easily 12 pounds – fought hard. Fifteen minutes
later, I was tailing it in the shallows. The fish was still
chrome bright, with only a hint of crimson on its gill
plates, though it had traveled more than 200 miles from
the Pacific. I slid Hamp’s barbless fly from the corner of
fish’s jaw, and moments later it swam away, hopefully to
spawn so a new generation of steelhead could swim to
sea and one day return.
A regular contributor to Trout and The New York Times,
Chris Santella, above, is author of 14 books, including Fifty
Places To Fly Fish Before You Die, and Why I Fly Fish.
RUNNING NEARLY 300 MILES BEFORE emptying into Oregon’s Columbia River, the John Day
is the second longest free-flowing stream in the Lower 48. In its middle reaches, it meanders
through majestic basalt canyons, some climbing more than 1,000 feet. Closer to the Columbia,
it cuts through low, rolling hills given over to cattle ranches and wheat farms. In the late fall,
that’s often where I can be found.
restoration in the
off in a stronger
run of steelhead
nice fish caught