It's been maybe eight or nine years since the last time I fished it, but back then it was good, and the two times before that it was spectacular. The first time I ever fished it, back around 1990 or so, it was the best stream smallmouth fishing I had ever experienced; a five day trip with an outfitter where everybody caught plenty of smallmouth and I averaged well over 100 smallies a day, with about 10% of them over 17 inches--biggest one was about 21 inches, and best day I caught somewhere around 175. The second time, three or four years later, we did a two day trip on a stretch farther upstream, and the numbers were about the same but the size range wasn't as good. On the third trip we had the problem of very murky water. There had been a big localized thunderstorm a long way upstream a week or so earlier that had caused a big landslide. The water level was back down to normal but the river flowing through the fresh landslide was apparently continuing to pick up a lot of silt. Because of that, fishing was tough...four of us, all very experienced river smallmouth anglers, averaged maybe 25-30 fish per day each, with only a few over 18 inches--I caught one 20 incher.
The John Day is a gorgeous river with an interesting smallmouth history. The first year I fished it, there was only one outfitter running summertime trips on the river, and it was only his second year to do so. The river at that time was somwhat known for spring time whitewater trips and a mediocre steelhead run, and very, very few people bothered to fish it in the summer. In fact, from what the outfitter told me, even the fish and game guys didn't realize what kind of smallmouth population it had until just a couple years before, when they tried to remove some undesirable fish from an upper trout section using rotenone, but something went wrong, the antidote didn't work, and the rotenone killed fish down into the smallmouth water. They were amazed at the number and size of the smallmouth killed in just a few miles of the smallie water.
The outfitter also told us that in the year before of running the same stretch, 65 miles down to the farthest downstream bridge, they'd never seen another angler. They ran trips where each angler paddled their own inflatable kayak with food and their own gear, and the guides rowed a big raft with most of the camping gear. The river was low enough in the summer that they sometimes had to drag the raft and manhandle it over some rock gardens. On our trip, we saw one canoe with two people, not seriously fishing.
Since my last trip wasn't terrific, and I haven't heard a whole lot about it since, I don't know how good the fishing is now, but I'd bet it's still very good if the conditions are right. And the river is a high desert canyon flow, with spectacular scenery and almost zero signs of civilization. That one section of 65 miles has no access in between put-in and take-out (and the put-in was private). There was one marginal class III rapid, and a lot of class II rock garden runs. In low summer water levels it probably didn't flow much over 250 cfs, and it was a blast for an angler in those inflatable kayaks (or in 'toons using a kayak paddle the last time I did it) because those inflatables just bumped along from one rock to the next like a pinball machine while I just kept on fishing and often didn't even pick up the paddle. Only problem was the wind. It normally picks up in the afternoons and makes paddling an inflatable a chore, and on the last trip there were several days when it blew like crazy all day long (always upstream, of course). I screwed up my shoulders paddling against that wind, and even had to get out and drag the 'toon along the shallow side through a lot of long pools because it was too difficult to make headway. I was really wishing I had a canoe or a regular kayak.
I think it's probably well worth considering.
Deck Rigging Gear
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