Spend a day – or three – afloat on the John Day

Eastern Oregon river requires an eye on the flow rates

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FOSSIL, Ore. -- When you've bragged about how well a river fishes (it's easy to exaggerate), doesn't the river always throw you a curve ball, leaving you looking stupid and fishless?

That wasn't the case with Oregon's 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, Ore.

Between those extremes, it cuts through a mix of redrock wilderness, ranchland and road-accessible sections with lots of irrigated farmland.

An early runoff

My fishing buddy, Darren Strong of Boise, and I had this trip on the books for months.

On any undammed river, flows are a crap shoot. We planned this trip in winter, and early June seemed - a good window when peak spring flows had receded, but there was still plenty of water for floating.

As it turned out, we launched June 6 as the water was receding toward minimum flows for a full-size raft.

It's now at minimum for small craft such as inflatable kayaks or small catarafts, and that might not last long, either.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't tuck this river away for a future float trip.

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 track how many you catch, better bring a golf clicker unless you're really good with big numbers in your head.

The river

Service Creek launch is at about 2,400 feet elevation and the river flows through wild and agriculture lands, 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.

Floaters should have experience on fast-moving rivers and some whitewater skills. Overall, this is a pretty forgiving river suitable for boats including rafts, driftboats, small fishing-style catarafts, inflatable and hard-shell kayaks, rafts and canoes.

Long-term river data going back to 1929 show mean monthly flows of 5,040 cubic feet per second in May, 2,490 cfs in June and 563 cfs in July.

BLM recommends the following minimum flows for different craft:

• Drift boats: 800 cfs

• Inflatable rafts: 500 cfs

• Canoes: 300 cfs

• Inflatable kayaks: 200 cfs

BLM recreation planner Heidi Mottl said there's been growing use at low water with people launching in inflatable kayaks with the river is at 200 cfs.

Floaters launching on low water should plan on more time on the water; lower flows mean slower river speed, she said.

As on most desert rivers, upstream winds are common, especially in the afternoon.

Scenery

The river corridor is roughly 50-50 between agriculture and ranch land and wildlands. Those expecting a "wilderness" float will be disappointed.

But it's a scenic trip, with redrock, volcanic basalt, rolling hills and lots of interesting geologic formations.

The river corridor is lush with willows and grasses, depending on the season. There are 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 dwindle as you go.

Camping

Overall, this river has 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, easily visible from the river. Many also are marked with brown carsonite signs.

This river is typically permitted 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 camping is not allowed on long stretches of private land in between. 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.

Fishing

The smallmouth bass fishing is off the charts. The river is infested with them, and arguably overpopulated. 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 in the spring 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.

For the most fun, bring a lightweight rod and you will have a blast landing these fish. They're scrappy and really fun to catch.

They seem to occupy every niche of habitat in the river except the riffles, and they may also be there certain times of year.

There are catfish in the river, but nowhere near the number of bass.

More details

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.

There are about four Class II rapids except at peak runoff, when some become mild Class III.

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. This section has more whitewater and most of the rapids are Class II and III except at high water, when some become Class IV.

For more information about the John Day River and the terms of float permits, go to blm.gov/or/permit.