Long known for its big, brawny B-run steelhead, the John Day arm of the Columbia River is producing fish that are gaining the attention of more anglers than ever.
Photo By Thomas Berg
Deep in the dark waters of the John Day arm of the Columbia, a red Wiggle Wart chugged along, rattling out a rhythm that soon drew the ire of a sassy summer steelhead. The big fish slipped behind the bait and angrily rolled over the raucous red intruder with a vicious strike.
Instantly the fish started shaking its head in an attempt to dislodge the painful little bait that had seized hold of its mouth. When that didn't work it charged off in a number of line-burning runs, but eventually exhausted itself in vain.
Above water the cry of "Fish on!" sent the boat's occupants into a frantic but well-organized frenzy. Rods were cranked in, the boat was stopped, and Don Schneider, long-time steelhead guide and owner of Reel Adventures guide service, slipped the net under the fish and pulled it into the boat. The three fishermen cheered the hatchery fish in unison, for everybody knows the first fish of the day is magic, and can often be the harbinger of even better things to come.
It was an auspicious beginning for what ended up a great day indeed, and by the end of the trip each fishermen had taken a limit of hatchery steelhead, and another three bonus fish were landed and released that had all of their fins. Some of the steelhead weighed more than 12 pounds -- and were probably headed to the Clearwater River in Idaho before Don and his clients intercepted them. The slate-gray skies and cold November wind could not dent the enthusiasm of the group of happy fishermen after such a fine day of fishing.
Schneider has been fishing the John Day arm of the Columbia River for almost 30 years, and he has seen this same scenario play out many times during those years. In that time he has developed some proven methods for taking the silvery steelhead that flock to this spot every year, milling about the mouth of the John Day River in large schools. He has also seen the popularity of the fishery explode, and now finds the familiar waters plied by plenty of boat-bound anglers on any given day.
Few of the newcomers can boast of Don's experience; he consistently out-fishes the rest of the fleet. Like most successful guides, he plays close attention to details; what the fish are telling him on any given day. He is also quick to offer advice to anglers. Those who follow his advice will catch more fish. Even better, the fishermen lucky enough to spend a day on his boat can learn first hand how to master the John Day and its big steelhead.
WHY DO THEY COME?
"It's a mystery," says Tim Unterwegner, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "There is no water quality factor that draws them in. The John Day typically runs warm in the late summer, with temperatures in the 70-degree plus range. It also has very low flows at that time of year, and it drains an area that gets very hot in the summer. We really don't know what it is that pulls them in."
In fact, the fishery starts to gain momentum just about the time the Columbia River starts to cool off in late September and early October.
The nine-mile canyon that is known as the John Day arm of the Columbia River is home to an increasingly popular fishery. Anglers from both the north and south sides of the big river have learned just how good the fishing can be.
However, this fishery is unlike many of the other well-known summer metalhead hotspots that line both the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River. The fisheries at the mouth of the Deschutes River, Herman Creek, the White Salmon, and the Klickitat all have one factor in common: cold water. As the waters of the Columbia grow more tepid with the passing of the summer, steelhead seek refuge in the plumes of cold water pouring out of the many highland tributaries. These steelhead are mostly headed for the headwaters of the Snake River in Idaho, but they pull into the tributaries and wait out the warm weather, eventually making their way home to their natal streams in the winter.
So why do they choose John Day? Unlike the other Columbia River tributaries, the John Day is not a coldwater stream. In fact, it's a renowned hotspot among smallmouth bass anglers.
One thing is sure; fish that originate in the John Day, a wild steelhead fishery that receives no hatchery plantings, does not drive the fishery. The little non-clipped native steelhead of the John Day are mostly one-salt fish that average about 24 to 26 inches. Many of the fish trolled up by anglers are clipped hatchery fish, and too many fish caught are huge "B" run steelhead. So where are all those fish coming from? "Those big fish in the mid-teens are probably heading to the Clearwater and Salmon rivers, as well as other Snake river tributaries," notes Unterwegner. "We have only just started to study where the hatchery strays originate, some of which move well up into the John Day itself. However, most of the fish eventually leave the John Day to continue their journey to Idaho."
The timing of the run is also a mystery, with the fishing remaining good through February during most years. However, last year that mystery took on new meaning when the run was a no-show. "Last year the fishing just never got good," says Schneider. "The same was true of the Deschutes fishery. Obviously something unusual happened in the Columbia, but we don't know what." Everyone's hoping the same thing doesn't happen this year. Biologists such as Unterwegner are also mystified about last year's non-season, and can offer few clues. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the run won't be good this year. It all depends on those magic Columbia River temperatures and the fickle nature of the summer steelhead themselves.
WHERE TO FIND FISH
There are almost 9 miles of trolling water in the narrow canyon that constitutes the John Day arm of Lake Umatilla. Steep, rocky hillsides frame the water and afford some protection from the winter winds of the main Columbia. Some of the best water is right in front of LePage Park, and includes the area between the boat ramp and the main park.
Shore-bound anglers often fish at the Highway 84 Bridge with bobber and bait, but this fishery is mostly a boat angler opportunity. The wind is still a factor down in the lower canyon; so many anglers with smaller boats stick to the reaches farther up the system.
It certainly helps to have a big, comfortable boat when fishing this water, and Don Schneider's 24-foot Duckworth can make a cold, drizzly day quite bearable. Schneider prefers to target the areas that run from 8 to 20 feet deep, since they fish the best with the plugs that Schneider uses, and the steelhead seem to prefer these
depths as well.
This is mostly a troll fishery, but many fishermen think it is as easy as tying on a red Brad's Wiggler and pulling it behind the boat. However, there are a few steps to take even before you put your boat out. "I keep a close watch on the dam counts," says Schneider, "and when I see the steelhead numbers jump going over the John Day Dam, but the McNary Dam counts stay low, then I know the steelhead are holding up somewhere in between, and that's probably the John Day arm." Once the fishery kicks in, the fishing should stay good into February.
You won't need any specialized gear for this fishing. Any steelhead rig that handles light line will do. Don prefers level-wind reels because they make it easier to control how far behind the boat the plug is running. He prefers 10-pound Maxima monofilament line, often turning to the high visibility line so it is easier to keep an eye on what is going on with the rods.
TACKLE & EQUIPMENT
At the business end he prefers to start with the favorite of the fishery, a Wiggle Wart or a Brad's Wiggler in red or pink. If the fish are finicky he will try other patterns such as metallic red, and the Michael Jackson. These baits will run consistently at about 12 feet, but the depth they run is also decided by the speed of the boat.
|JOHN DAY SMALLMOUTHS||If the steelhead aren't cooperating, or you limit out quickly, you can try your hand at fishing for smallmouth bass. The John Day arm has excellent smallmouth fishing, and the October bite can be the best of the year.|
Work the rocky shorelines and points with tube jigs, spinnerbaits or, if the water is between 55 and 65 degrees, crankbaits. The bass will be feeding aggressively as they fatten up for winter. Also fish over rocky reefs and submerged humps.
Remember that weather conditions in this region can become windy and chilly during fall and winter. Check conditions before you go, ans always carry warm clothing and rain gear. -- Terry Otto
On occasion Schneider will use the Magnum Warts, whenever he wants to really bounce the bottom. These bigger baits will tend to run deeper, at about 16 feet. Sometimes the sight of that big plug nicking the bottom, and sending little plumes of mud up off the bottom as it ticks along, will drive the steelhead wild.
Whatever plug you choose to run, you will need to tune the lure if you want to have a reasonable chance of catching fish. A failure to tune plugs is probably one of the biggest mistakes that fishermen make when they troll. Most plugs will have a tendency to run off-center, right out of the box. This keeps them from running at the depth you want to fish, and the off-kilter action seems to deter strikes. Also, don't just tune the plug and forget about it. "Anytime you get a strike, catch a fish, or tick the bottom hard, you can knock the plug out of tune," says Schneider; "I always check the action of the plugs before I start fishing again."
To tune your plug, check it in the water at trolling speed, and then pull the plug forward hard! If the plug rolls over to one side, take needle-nose pliers and adjust the eyehole of the plug to the right or left until the bait runs straight and true.
Keeping the setup simple is a good idea, especially if you are new to the river. Don does not like to add weight to his rig when he trolls, and you shouldn't either. First, if the plug is well tuned, it will reach the key depths without added weight. Also, the plug will retain a better action if a lead dropper is not restraining it. The lack of lead will also help in keeping the plug well behind the boat, and the steelhead will be less disturbed by the prop.
While Don does not automatically add scents to his bait, he will add such attractants if the bite is tough, or the steelhead are being picky. A few of his favorites for the John Day include anise and crawfish-anise.
FISHING WITH BAIT
When no one is taking fish with the usual trolling techniques, then it's time to get creative. "Pay attention to what the fish are telling you," Don advises. "You can fine-tune what you are doing, or try something completely different." This attitude led Don to try some new techniques a few years back on the John Day, and the result is that he has developed a way to fish for these steelhead with bait, but not in the static, bobber fishing approach, in which you wait for the fish to swim near your offering. The basics of the techniques are the same, but he feels it is important to keep the bait moving to cover more water.
Toward that end, he prefers to use this method when there is some current, or a little wind chop. Any natural element that moves the boat along slowly is an advantage. However, when that doesn't happen, try a super slow troll by using sea anchors, or trolling backward.
While it's always a good idea to keep the bait within a few feet of the bottom, sometimes the fish are suspended in the water column. It is easier to control the depth when there is current or wind, but when you're trolling it is tougher to do. A slow speed is essential, and the distance between the bobber and the bait might have to be adjusted longer to account for the increased drag of the boat. This is an approach that takes some time to master.
There are almost 9 miles of trolling water in the narrow canyon that constitutes the John Day arm of Lake Umatilla.
Schneider says the best are sand shrimp and dyed prawn tails. The prawn tails should be purple or another dark shade.
Other good baits include the Coon Tail Shrimp, which is smaller than the more common variety, and they can be used whole. There are times when steelhead want a tiny bait, and these can be the ticket. Small, thin bobbers, such as the Thill slip floats, work the best for this technique.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Boat launching, RV camping and some limited tent camping are available at Le Page Park at the mouth of the John Day. The park is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and reservations, while not required, are suggested for weekend campers. The reservations number is 1-877-444-6777. The phone number for the park itself is (541) 739-2713. Launching and tent camping cost $3 each, and RV sites are $18 per day.
Another camping option is Philippi State Park, about three miles up the John Day River from the mouth. This is a boat-only access park, and the facilities are very nice, with tent sites, bathrooms and showers.
The town of Rufus has a bait store, convenience store, restaurants and gas. Lodging is available in The Dalles, no matter how much or how little you want to spend.
For guided trips, call Don Schneider of Reel Adventures at (503) 622-5372 or (877) 544-REEL.