Steelhead Trout

Life On The John Day

By Chris Santella

Photo of fishing on the John Day RiverThe John Day River runs through Oregon for nearly 300 miles before emptying into the Columbia River. The John Day supports the largest wild run of steelhead in the Lower 48. (Photo: Peter Marbach/Western Rivers Conservancy)

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.

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.

Photo of Chris Santella with his steelhead trout catchRiparian habitat restoration in the Northwest pays off in a stronger run of
steelhead including this nice fish caught by Chris. (Photo: Chris Santella)

"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 Cottonwood 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.

— Published: April/May 2014

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