It doesn't get much better than fishing for steelhead in a scenic river canyon

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - There's nothing quite like hooking a steelhead.

On the fifth or sixth cast the fish hit. There's no mistaking the strike of a steelhead. I set the hook and the excitement began.
   I don't always listen to every bit of advice from every guide or outfitter (and have lost some nice fish because of it), but this time I did. Ten minutes earlier, our small group pulled the two drift boats ashore on an island and Steve Fleming told me and the other two anglers to do some fishing while he and his guide, Robert "RB" Bissonette, prepared lunch. He also told us to yell if we hooked a fish so he could come running with the net.
   After making sure the fish was securely attached to my line and watching it jump a few times, I yelled out something like, "Fish on, bring the net!" I was about 200 yards downriver, around a bend with a rather strong breeze blowing downriver as well. After a minute or two, I noticed no one coming to my rescue so I yelled again and added a few high-pitched whistles. Still nothing.
   Oh well, better concentrate on the fish for a while, I thought. It made a run upriver, then across the river, screaming line from the reel. Then it decided to make a run right at me so I reeled for all I was worth trying to keep tension on the line. Both of us seemed to be tiring as the fish got to within 10 feet of shore in less than a foot of water.
   Perhaps a lull in the wind or a louder whistle finally got the others' attention and they came a-running - or at least fast a-walking, being in chest waders and negotiating a minefield full of cobbles that lay between us. When Fleming stood beside me with the net, I could finally relax. The fish however, had one more burst of energy left and after a quick "thrash and splash" he headed back to the middle of the river, minus my lure.
   Not exactly how I pictured "catch and release" but it was fun while it lasted. I managed to lose a second steelhead while casting from the boat the next day. However, I did land a nice smallmouth bass.
   Fishing on the John Day River ranks at the very top of my favorite outdoor activities. While most of the fishing I've done entails smallmouth bass and warmer weather, I couldn't pass up the opportunity at some winter steelhead fishing. Five of us spent two days on the river covering about 20 miles from Cottonwood Bridge down to McDonald's Crossing (also known as the Oregon Trail Crossing).
   Fleming, owner of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil, targets steelhead in the river until the beginning of March. By then he said the Service Creek area will see about the last of the run. At that time, he'll fish a little bit for steelhead in the morning, then switch to smallmouth bass as it warms up.
   Our trip began with sunshine and mild temperatures followed by a day of 38- to 40-degree rain. On trips like this down the canyon, equipment such as propane heaters, warm clothes and good raingear are a must.
   Bruce Belles, owner and manager of Clackacraft Drift Boats, landed three nice steelhead while fly-fishing, bringing his count to 53 fish since early fall. Most were caught in the Deschutes River. He said the John Day fish seemed to be stronger and fought harder than the Deschutes River fish.
   "This was my fourth time fishing the John Day River with Steve and my first time out for steelhead," Belles said. "It was a beautiful float from Cottonwood Bridge downriver and the fishing was fantastic."
   Belles caught all three steelhead using the same technique - bobber and jig (1/8-ounce black and purple Fisher jig with salmon-colored beads on the jig head) on a 13 «-foot flexible fly rod with dragless center-pin reel. Although similar in appearance to a spey rod, this rod uses 6-pound monofilament, making it easier to work the fish without breaking the line. The bobber and jig method works about the same way with either fly-fishing or spin-casting setups.
   "What I try to target is seam water where two currents come together where the fish are going to move out of the faster current into the slower water for some relief," Belles explained. The first two fish he caught and released were wild, the largest measuring about 28 inches. He kept a hatchery fish that measured about 24 inches.
   His drift boats worked perfectly for the river conditions. The bottoms of the boats are very flexible, which is helpful in low water when hitting rocks and gravel. This made it so we didn't have to get out and push or pull boats through the low spots. Instead, we slid right over the low riffles.
   Belles said that drift boats are the most versatile boats known to man, made for whitewater, lake fishing, river fishing and even ocean fishing. All his boats carry a lifetime guarantee against bottom punctures or side leaks. He sells over 550 boats a year.
   "Steve runs a first-class operation and definitely gets you into fish," said Belles. "The Dutch oven cooking in the boat is a unique thing that nobody else offers."
   During this time of year, river conditions can change quickly. When we started our trip, the river flow was 550 cubic feet per second. Just after we got off, it rose to 1,270 cfs. High flows, dirty water, cold water and ice-ups can slow the progress of the steelhead and the angler.
   Fleming said there have been radio tracking studies conducted that show steelhead average about seven miles per day, taking them about three weeks to reach Service Creek. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, just about all the fish will be in their spawning streams by April 15.
   Besides the bobber and jig technique, Fleming also uses steelhead spoons from Rainbow Plastics that resemble Stee-Lees. He prefers the red and white «-ounce copper spoons in teardrop shape. Smelly Jelly scent in anchovy or shrimp flavor is added for additional enticement.
   When fishing from shore, Fleming suggests casting slightly upstream and steadily walking downstream until you cover the hole. "You want your lure to hit the bottom once in a while," he said. The fish will be staged just over a foot off the bottom, he added. When fishing a hole from the boat, drop anchor and make four or five casts then float down about 20 feet and drop anchor again.
   Fleming said in the lower section of river, he's seen about a 50:50 ratio of wild to hatchery fish. In the upper section, there will be more native fish. Occasionally, there will be a few B-run steelhead caught. These are the larger fish (up to 20 pounds) that head for Idaho but make a wrong turn and swim up the lower part of the John Day River.
   Bissonette said he likes to target river flows of about 750 to 1,000 cubic feet per second with clear, ice-free water. "By mid-March the days are getting longer and the water is warming up enough for ice-free fishing but the flows can be above 3,000 cfs and the water clarity poor," he explained. "On those days I feel a person is better off fishing the back currents and slack water for smallmouth bass."
   Although weather and water conditions may be changeable, Fleming will be offering steelhead trips until the first part of March on the river. Call 888-624-9424 for more information or to book a trip.
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