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The ‘hat fish:’ the one that nearly got away

While continually missing the big one, Scott Staats has been tempted to write a book titled, “The Biggest Fish I’ve Ever Lost”

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Boats float and fish on the John Day River.

Sometimes the most memorable fishing experiences are not about the fish we bring home, but the ones that got away. Over the years it seems that missing big fish has become a part of my outdoor life. I'm tempted to write a book titled "The Biggest Fish I've Ever Lost." I know I definitely lost more lunker fish than I've ever caught. I've even helped others with me lose fish (sometimes even accidentally).
   One of my goals has been to land a smallmouth bass from the John Day River over 20 inches. On my first outing with Steve Fleming of Mah-Hah Outfitters out of Fossil, my wife landed a smallmouth measuring 20-1/4 inches and got her hat.
   Anyone landing a fish 20 inches or over gets a "Master Angler" hat. My wife almost always catches bigger fish than I do. All I can say is it's a good thing she's not a hunter.
   My last outing with Fleming turned out to be my best ever on the river. Three of us caught a total of 142 bass with many between 12 and 18 inches. Just after one of Fleming's famous Dutch oven lunches, I felt the tug, tug of a bass on the line, lowered the rod and set the hook.
   When the fish started taking line, I knew it was a big one. When it jumped, we all knew it was big. Fleming said it was at least 20 inches and all I thought was "don't lose it." When it jumped the second time, it spit the hook and swam back to the bottom, taking with it any chance of me landing a 20-incher. Oh well, it's fun to have a big fish on the line - at least that's what people say who never land a lunker.
   Later in the afternoon, and only a mile or so from the takeout, I had another good strike. Seconds later the fish jumped about 30 feet away from the boat. My heartbeat proceeded to increase precipitously when I saw the bass.
   "This is your hat fish, don't lose it," Fleming said. Of course the pressure was on to finally land a 20-incher. To make things worse, a couple of pontoon boats came floating by. I've never seen any other people on this stretch of river this time of year and they had to pick today to watch me lose the biggest smallmouth bass I've ever hooked. Stage fright was building to a crescendo.
   The fish jumped a second time then decided to head under the boat. I jammed the rod tip into the water to prevent further jumps. Then the fish started swimming to the surface again and I reeled like crazy to prevent slack.
   I could finally breathe a sigh of relief when Fleming had the net under the fish. As he laid the net in the boat, the hook simply fell out of the fish's mouth. The smallmouth measured 21 1 / 4 inches, my biggest I've ever landed. Now I know what it feels like to stand atop Mount Everest - well, sort of. Anyway, my bad luck streak was over.
   Fleming uses a few new methods to improve his fishing success. Outlaw Baits are his top choice on the river now. Most of our fish came on 5-inch black Ripple Worms. He also uses Ultra Bite from Mustad, a pheromone that induces feeding. By mixing a dash of Ultra Bite in Smelly Jelly scent, Fleming has found that he can now catch about 10 fish from holes where he usually catches five fish a day.
    He attributes several factors for catching more large fish. "First off, the new slot limit didn't hurt," he said. Bass between 12 and 16 inches must be released unharmed. The limit is five fish per day with no more than one over 16 inches (from Service Creek downriver). He also said that the last four years of low water have kept many anglers off the river, giving the bass a chance to grow.
   The John Day River in central Oregon is among only a handful of western rivers where anglers have an opportunity to catch trophy smallmouth bass in a wild and scenic canyon.
   In 1971, 80 smallmouth bass were introduced into the upper reaches of the John Day River by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. By the end of that year, juvenile bass were found throughout a 50-mile stretch of river. From that original stocking, the John Day is now considered by many to be one of the best smallmouth rivers in the country.
   Today the fish are scattered throughout most of the John Day system, with estimates well over 1,000 fish per mile. Many believe the next state record will come from the John Day. The current state record is 7 pounds 14 ounces.
   Contacts: Mah-Hah Outfitters at 888-624-9424. The Service Creek Stage Stop offers everything anglers need for an outing on the river, including a Bed and Breakfast, raft and Bi-yak rentals, shuttle service, caf‚ and store. Call 541-468-3331 or check out their Web site at www.servicecreekstagestop.com.
   Scott Staats is a full-time outdoor writer who has lived in Prineville for the last 10 years. His articles have appeared in local, regional, and national publications. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.