A bass twitched off the hook and nearly fell into Steve Fleming’s lap.
“There’s a cloud above me, and it’s raining fish!” Fleming joked.
During the late summer on the John Day River, temperatures often exceed 100 degrees.
But it’s always raining fish, even as the temperatures cool in the fall. Smallmouth bass there are hungry and aggressive, and catching 100 fish in a single day is not uncommon.
Fleming, of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, Ore., has small counters attached to his oars to keep track of how many fish each person in the boat has landed.
When our group met at Service Creek, Fleming got our attention with this: In mid-August, a 10-year-old boy in Fleming’s boat on the John Day caught 223 bass one day and 218 the next. The boy and his grandfather caught and released 1,051 fish in three days.
I tried not to let that information get my hopes up, and I made a mental note to be satisfied with 20 or so fish.
I reached that mark before noon.
The third-longest free-flowing river (no dams) in the United States, the John Day runs nearly 300 miles from the Strawberry and Blue mountains to the Columbia River. Steelhead come up the river in October and November, and cutthroat trout can be caught in the upper reaches. The John Day is also home to carp and channel catfish.
In 1971, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife planted 80 smallmouth bass in the river near Service Creek, and smallmouth fry were scattered over a 50-mile stretch later that year.
Now, the ODFW estimates the smallmouth bass population at an astonishing 1,000 fish per mile in the lower 200 miles of the river.
The bass have no doubt flourished in the John Day, which has plenty of calm pools and food for the bass (bugs and crayfish).
Some would say they are too much of a good thing. Overpopulated. Most of the fish are small.
But Fleming calls it “a good fit.”
“(Bass fishing) is the fastest-growing fishing in the U.S.,” he said.
Fleming likes to use 1⁄16-ounce leadhead and 2- to 3-inch plastic grubs or worms with Smelly Jelly scent.
Doug Elder, of Fossil, and I would fish this way all day, casting toward the bank and waiting for bites, which were frequent.
When we felt a tug, Fleming instructed us to drop the rod tip (so the bass does not feel the pressure of the hook), count to three, then set the hook.
The plan was to drift about 5 miles from the tiny town of Spray to a private takeout just upstream of Service Creek.
While Fleming prepared the boat at Spray, I felt a bite on my first cast from the bank. I missed the fish, but it did not take long to get the rhythm down.
Soon, Elder and I were reeling in fish after fish, especially from the deeper holes.
We drifted along the river, which meandered amid rugged, sun-lit rimrock. Despite world-class fishing and unique scenery, the John Day River Basin remains a remote part of Oregon.
“For every day I see somebody, there’s two days I never see anybody,” Fleming said. “It’s a big river, too.”
The bass on the John Day concentrate in pools during the low water levels of late summer. Fleming anchored the boat in certain bass hot spots. The river was running at 141 cubic feet per second on this day.
The low water is also warmer, which makes the bass more aggressive.
Elder and I were going for high numbers of fish, and we caught mostly smaller fish, ranging from 6 to 8 inches in length.
Darlene Livermore of Salem, Ore., was targeting bigger bass by fly-fishing with top-water poppers (large dry flies) of her own creation from Fleming’s boat.
She was not landing as many fish as Doug and I, but her fish were certainly nicer.
Fleming recommended that fly anglers on the John Day also try Woolly Buggers of all colors.
Fishing from the bank is also an option on the John Day, especially from Service Creek upstream to the town of Monument.
A guide for 21 years on the John Day (johndayriverfishing.com), Fleming has his days dialed in, from the angling to the eats. He used a Dutch oven, charcoal and a small propane torch on the boat to slowly cook pork tenderloin, potatoes and carrots for lunch. Later, the same oven produced a memorable peach cobbler.
After lunch, the sun roasted us as temperatures approached 100 degrees and the bass became even more feisty.
I finished the day having caught 72 fish. Elder landed 80 and Livermore caught 33, but with plenty of decent-sized bass. We released all 185 fish.
The biggest bass landed on the John Day this year, according to Fleming, measured 23 inches long and weighed 6 pounds, 12 ounces.
Early spring – March and April – is the best time to fish for big bass, Fleming said, before the water temperature exceeds 52 degrees. But catch rate per angler averages only two to eight fish in the springtime. Once the water warms, anglers can expect an average of 75 to 100 fish in July and August.
Fishing slows down a little bit in late September, but the potential for 100-fish days remains.
“It’ll remain really good until the middle of October,” Fleming said.
“I’ve had 100-fish days in the middle of October.”
Nobody in our group reached the century mark on this day, but 70 to 80 fish is enough to keep busy – and to make it seem as though it’s raining fish.