When you've bragged about how well a river fishes, and the river throws you a curve ball, you're left looking stupid and fishless.
That wasn't the case with the John Day River. We had just launched the raft and ferried across the river from the boat launch when my first few casts hit the water and my fly rod bowed.
Not only had I just caught my first smallmouth bass, but two others chased it toward the boat. Eastern Oregon may not seem a like a bass fishing hot spot, but the John Day is about as hot as it gets, and fishing is arguably not even the river's main attraction.
The John Day River basin drains nearly 8,100 square miles in Eastern Oregon and is one of longest free-flowing river systems in the U.S. Its headwaters are in the Strawberry Mountain Range that tops out at over 9,000 feet, and the river pours into the Columbia River at 265 feet in elevation near Biggs.
Between those extremes, it cuts through a mix of redrock wilderness, ranchland and road-accessible sections with lots of irrigated farmland.
My fishing buddy, Darren Strong, of Boise, and I had this trip on the books for months. With any undammed river, it's a crapshoot with flows. When we planned this trip during winter, early June seemed like a good window, when the peak spring flows would have receded but there would still be plenty of water for floating. As it turned out, we launched on June 6 as the water was receding toward minimum flows for a full-size raft.
It's a beautiful desert river that won't leave you with white knuckles worrying about whitewater. And those bass? Well, if you want to keep track of how many you catch, better bring a golf clicker unless you're really good with counting numbers in your head.
The Service Creek launch is at about 2,400 feet elevation and the river flows through wild and agriculture lands. The river's flow is fairly steady, with lots of riffles and a few rapids that are well-marked on the maps. There are also slow-water stretches that often coincide with upstream winds. Overall, this is a pretty forgiving river suitable for rafts, driftboats, small, fishing-style catarafts, inflatable and hard-shell kayaks, rafts and canoes.
BLM recreation planner Heidi Mottl said there's been growing use at low water, with people in inflatable kayaks launching when the river is as low as 200 cfs. Floaters launching during low water should plan on spending more time on the water because lower flows mean slower river speed, she said.
The river corridor is roughly 50-50 between agricultural and ranch land and wildlands. Those expecting a "wilderness" float will be disappointed. But it's a scenic trip that's a combination of redrock, volcanic basalt, rolling hills and lots of interesting geologic formations.
The river corridor is lush with willows and grasses, depending on season. There's also lots of juniper and pine trees near the river. The section from Service Creek to Clarno has few tributaries that flow into the river, and the local farms and ranches draw lots of water from the river for irrigation, so flows can get smaller as you go downstream.
The John Day offers excellent camping on flat benches above the river, with large shade trees at many locations. The camps are marked on the map, and many have well-worn trails leading to them that are easily visible from the river. Many also are marked with brown carsonite signs.
This river typically requires permits to limit the number of floaters and ensure there are plenty of campsites for everyone. However, even during permit season you can expect competition for prime spots. Campsites are not assigned, so the first group to stake a claim gets the spot. Also, with a mix of private and public lands, the campsites often are located in clusters and there are long stretches of private land in between where camping is not allowed. Plan your trip accordingly and don't bank on the last available campsite. If you miss it, you may have a long float before the next one.
The smallmouth bass fishing is off the charts. The river is infested with them. The fish are small and aggressive, with the average size probably around 9 to 10 inches. There are larger fish in the river, which are probably caught mostly during the spring in the spawning season. We fly-fished the whole time and took about 90 percent of our fish off surface flies. There's no reason to think people wouldn't do as well or better with conventional tackle.
There also are catfish in the river, but nowhere near the number of bass. There are several sections of the John Day River that are commonly floated. If you're into a casual float with mild whitewater (except during peak run-off), Service Creek to Clarno is a 47-mile stretch that you can typically do in three days, with several launches and takeouts in between to shorten the trip into smaller segments. Several companies provide shuttles. Service Creek Lodge near the launch site charged $80 for the shuttle to the Clarno launch.
A longer option is the Clarno-to-Cottonwood section, which is 70 miles long and typically done in five days.
A permit is required to float the river between May 20 and July 10, but the permits were waived this year because of a computer problem. Permit requirements will return next year. That means you can still do a trip this summer, but expect low water and plan to go ultralight.
Requirements for the trip include portable toilets and fire pans. Also, no campfires are allowed from June 1 to Sept. 30. For more information about the John Day River, see blm.gov/or/permit.