Fish & Fly Magazine
Home Waters – Oregon
High Time for Steelhead in the Desert
by staff writer
The John Day River in north-central Oregon flows 180 or so miles without a dam or hatchery before dumping into the Columbia River. The second longest free-flowing river in the continental United States runs through some of the most scenic country in the West. It supports resident wild rainbow trout and smallmouth bass as well as migratory populations of chinook and coho salmon. But it’s the native steelhead that give this puzzling river its luster–puzzling because, depending on the source of information, the John Day is either one of Oregon’s best-kept secrets or a well-deserved oversight in the steelheading community.
There are some inherent problems with the John Day River when in comes to fly fishing. The biggest of them is accessibility. More than half the fishable water is away from roads. Far away. If you don’t have several days to devote to the river, you may just want to try the J.D.’s larger sister river: the Deschutes. You will definitely find more reliable information and better access. The tradeoff is fishing pressure.
Experienced anglers will also tell you that the farmers who own a lot fo the land surrounding the river are…well, how do you say it? Cranky. It is easy for many fly fishers to have a negative perception of these farmers because they generally don’t like you coming close to their side of the stream. In addition to this, their habit of draining the river to soak their fields during the summer can have devasting effects on the fish.
So why try the John Day? For starters, 30,000 steelhead. That’s how many adult fish are estimated to enter the system each year. And almost every last one is wild.
Also, if you are a fan of being alone in a canyon with not another angler within 10 miles, you may just be a candidate for enjoying the John Day experience.
Dave McCoy of Emerald Water Anglers has been guiding on the John Day for the last four years and believes that is’s worth fishing. “It’s a pretty intriguing river,” he says. It’s probably one of the most un-talked-about steelhead rivers in the country.”
February is an intersting time to fish the John Day because the steelhead will be well distributed far upriver, which isn’t the case during the more popular months of October and November. At least one in three fish you’ll catch will be remarkably silver, as shiny as anything you’ll encounter on the Deschutes in September.
Watch for a sudden rise in air temperature and resulting quick thaw. And be prepared to change your technique.
“It’s really funny because when we take anglers who are used to fishing the coast this time of year, they gravitate toward the riffles and the water that looks Skagit-esque,” McCoy tells FISH & FLY. “You’ll find some fish in that kind of water some of the time, but the majority of the fish we hit are in the water that’s so slow moving that most people walk right past it and don’t even bother to fish it.”
How slow? “So slow that your 65 foot cast takes more than a minute to swing,” says McCoy. “So slow your fly practically creeps along.”
If you’re impatient you won’t catch a thing. McCoy stresses the importance of allowing your fly to go through its entire range of motion before picking up for your next cast. Let it hang. John Day steelhead like the very end of a fly’s swing.
Most serious steelheaders these days are proficient with both single-handed and two-handed rods. Although the John Day is not a very large river, Dave McCoy says there are enough runs where single-handed fly rods can’t quite make the distance and still maintain vital control of the fly’s movement which warrants packing your spey outfit.
Go light. Stick with a 6-weight to 8-weight rod matched with a floating line. Such tackle is pretty much the standard for John Day steelheading throughout the year, even in the wintertime. The water is shallow. Leave your sinking line at home–it will only reduce the contents of your fly box, unproductively.
Skating dry flies is an effective way to fish in the fall but once December arrives you have to go down. The egg-sucking leach and Skykomish Sunrise are two of Dave’s favorite flies for winter steelhead on the J.D. Bring along a Purple Peril as well, size 2.
If you’ve never fished the John Day and don’t have a week to spend floating the river, the Rock Creek area is a good place to get your waders wet. There you’ll find a fair amount of public land that you can drive through and you can fish the river from a gravel BLM road.