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John Day River Steelhead, on a Fly

Oregon's longest free-flowing river offers native steelhead, Chinook salmon and smallmouth bass fishing

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No, the author did not eat this steelhead raw; native fish such as this one require catch and release. - HANS VOGNILD
  • Hans Vognild
  • No, the author did not eat this steelhead raw; native fish such as this one require catch and release.
If you like fly fishing, heading out to the lower section of the John Day River during the summer steelhead run could be a fishing trip you'll never forget. Ten-plus fish days are possible when the run is strong and the fish are in the river.  

Directions: An easy access point is Cottonwood Canyon State Park, located off Hwy 206 southeast of Wasco. The quickest way to get there from Bend: north on Hwy 97 through Madras and north to Wasco, then south on Hwy. 206.

Gear Needed: Cottonwood has 21 primitive camp spots, so bring a tent, sleeping bag and plenty of food and water. For your fishing setup, I recommend a 6 or 7-weight Spey rod and a reel to match for long days of casting in big water. Bring waders and plenty of layers—the river can get cold quickly in the fall. There are plenty of fly-fishing shops in and around Bend, such as Confluence Fly Shop in the Old Mill and Bend Fly Shop on Third Street. Tell the guys at the shop where you're going and they'll hook you up with the right flies and leaders.  Also, you're going into rattlesnake territory. I've never had a problem in the 20-plus years fishing the river, but a satellite phone is never a bad idea. Day Wireless in Bend has them for rent.   



CHRIS MILLER
  • Chris Miller

This Perfect Day:  My fishing buddy Hans and I woke at 4:30 from our tent, slipped into waders, stuffed our packs with food and water and headed out under the light of headlamps down river from our campsite. The place we fish borders land owned by the John Day River Club—in fact, most of the John Day is directly bordered by private land owners—so be mindful of walking below the high-water mark. At about 5:30 we arrived at our favorite run, waited for the sun to fully rise, then started swinging flies. 

A tidbit of history: I fished this same stretch of river for about five years before landing my first steelhead. But on this perfect day, I hooked and landed more than 10 before lunch. The first fish plucked at my purple peril ever so slightly. I let the loop in my line run out and swung the tip of my 12-foot rod toward the bank. The bright chrome fish jumped and ran for 10 minutes before I could release him back into the river to go make more steelhead.  

By the time the sun had set, Hans and I hooked about 20 fish each, laughed, watched pheasants and chukars take off and fly across the river, and got to see an otter snack on one of the many small mouth bass that live in the river.  

After an hour's walk in the dark we returned to camp, heated our dinner, and had some aged single-malt scotch. The perfect end to a perfect day.

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