Copyright 2013James Marsh
Fly Fishing On The John Day River In
The John Day River is a tributary of the Columbia River
that's approximately 281 miles long. It is located in
northeastern Oregon. The river is the second longest
free-flowing river in the conterminous United States. It's
classified as a “Wild and Scenic” river under Oregon
Scenic Waterways Act.
Much of the river is surrounded by steep basalt canyon
walls, juniper, and sagebrush. Fly fishing the John Day
River varies greatly depending on the area and season.
The river gets very low in the summer and boats have a
tough to impossible time to navigate it.
Although it is best known for its smallmouth bass fishing,
the John Day River is famous for its wild steelhead. The
system has one of the last all-wild runs of adronomous
fish east of the Cascade Mountains. The steelhead
average about 6 to 8 pounds with larger ones caught
frequently. There are not any hatchery fish released in
the John Day River.
Steelhead enter the lower section of the river in October
and will continue to enter the river throughout the
Winter. Late October through mid December is the
prime time. Unlike many other steelhead rivers, the John
Day River is never crowded. The river can be waded and
fished with both single handed and Spey rods. Drift boat
fishing is the most popular method of fishing the river.
The Steelhead run on the John Day River starts to pick
up shortly after the water rises. The water is used for
irrigation of the high desert country until the first of
October but when it is shut off, the river rises and the
fish start to show up. The fish are in the river through
During the steelhead season, the John Day moves along
mostly steady with lots of riffles and some rapids. The
rapids are shown on the maps and are popular for white
water rafters. There are also some slow water areas of
If you float the river on your on, you should have some
experience with fast water boating and depending on the
area, white water skills. It can be floated by drift boats,
inflatable rafts, kayaks and even canoes depending on
the area and the flows. The best flows for drift boats is
around 800 cfs. Canoes and Kayaks should probably be
lower than 300 cfs.
There is limited access for the steelhead fishing. The
best access is found at Rock Creek; Cottonwood
Canyon on highway #206; Clarno on highway #218; and
Service Creek on Highway #19.
The fishing season is species specific. Be sure to check
the current regulations
There is a current short spring season open for Chinook
Salmon. Late spring starts the smallmouth bass season.
Summertime is the best time for smallmouth bass fishing
and the upper section rainbows and cutthroat trout.
Early Fall is good for smallmouth bass.
Wintertime fishing on the John Day River for
steelhead and salmon strictly depends on the weather.
The fish will be there, but whether or not you can fish for
them is weather dependant.
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Recommended Tackle & Gear
4, 5 or 6 weight
Dry fly: 9 ft., 5 or 6X Nymphing: 71/2 ft.,
3 or 4X, Streamers 0-2X
Dry fly: 5 or 6X, Nymphing: 3 or 4X,
Best Fly Rods:
Perfect Fly Supreme Four, Superb Five
or Ultimate Six
For 4/5/6 fly line
Fly Floatants and Misc Items:
Floatants, KISS Strike Indicators
Tools & Accessories:
Nippers, forceps, retractors, etc.
Copyright 2019 James Marsh
Recommended Tackle & Gear for
Steelhead and Salmon
7, 8 , 9 or 10 weight for appropriate type
rod, sinking, sinking tip and floating
10#, 12# in 9 to 15 feet lengths
10# and 12#
Best Fly Rods:
Perfect Fly 7, 8, 9 and 10 ft. single hand
For 7 to 10 weight lines
Fly Floatants and Misc Items:
KISS Strike Indicators, Lanyards, etc.
Tools & Accessories:
Nippers, forceps, retractors, etc.
10/14/15 The flows have increased back up to near normal levels and this will help. The
cooler weather has also helped improve the bass fishing opportunity. Smallmouth bass
fishing is excellent and will continue to be good as long as the stream levels are in good
10/24/15 Smallmouth bass fishing is excellent again. The flows are a little below normal and
smallmouth are taking our Crayfish imitations and streamers very well. The are also taking
the Stealth Bomber topwater fly well, providing a lot of action. We have a new Smallmouth
Bass Website we sponsor.
11/14/15 Stream levels are up from where they have been for a long time but still way below
normal. The river is still producing good numbers of smallmouth bass. Streamers and top
water flies are working. There is a little chance of rain a couple of days this week, so levels
will drop again.
12/05/15 There are a lot of steelhead in the river and our customers are catching plenty of
them. They are swinging, nymphing and fishing egg flies. Be sure to check out our Perfect
Fly Steelhead flies. We have many of our own patterns. The water temperature is just right.
12/12/15 Steelhead fishing in the lower river continues to be okay. The lower river below
Cottonwood Canyon State Park is best. The summer steelhead moving past McDonald Ford
has slowed. The mouth of Rock Creek and Cottonwood Canyon State Park is where you
need to fish. The slightly warmer weather this coming week and rain should help.
12/26/15 The river levels are headed up high. It will take at least two or three day, or longer,
for it to settle back down. Of course this brings more fish into the river but it will be a while
before you can start swinging for them.
12/26/15 We received some reports the past week from customers fishing the lower river
below Cottonwood Canyon State Park. The problem has been the water levels and off color
of the water. Some fish have been caught from the bank at the mouth of Rock Creek and in
Cottonwood Canyon state park.
01/09/16 It has been cold and the ice situation is getting better. There are a lot of fish in the
river. You just have to make slow presentations in the bottom holes out of the main current.
Indicator nymphing is picking some fish up as well as swinging but it must be done slow and
hit the fish in the nose. Levels are okay, so get off the couch.
01/16/16 The water temperature is up some due to much warmer weather. With the weather
comes more rain and rain/show but the ice is melting and this should help the fly fishing
opportunities. Swinging and nymphing using an indicator has been working some. There is
lots of rain in the forecast, so watch the stream levels.
01/30/16 Steelhead fishing is good wherever the water isn't too cold and basically that is
Service Creek downstream. Fish are in the upper river as well but there is a lot of ice. The
North Fork is frozen over. You just have to watch the weather and fish following the warmer
days, that is, provided the flows are not too high.
02/06/16 The river is finally back down to levels that can be fished and steelhead are being
caught in good numbers. They are dispersed throughout the river including above the
Service Creek area where most are currently being caught. The water is still just a little high
but will continue to fall for the next four days or more.
02/13/16 The river is on the way up again and badly stained. There's not much opportunity
until the levels begin to subside. You will just have to keep an eye on the levels. There are
plenty of fish in the river and plenty were being caught, so it will improve again in the near
02/26/16 The river has been high and badly stained for the past week but is almost back
down to a normal level. It is clear and angler should again be able to catch steelhead. They
are distributed throughout the river, even in the upper section above Service creek.
Swinging should be the best method.
03/05/16 There has been a lot of rain in the John Day watershed and the river is very high.
We think it will be at least two to four days before returning to a level worth fishing. Swinging
flies usually works best when it does get near a good level.
03/12/16 The river is still very high with a chance of rain occuring each day of forty to sixty
percent through next Wednesday. It isn't likely the river will be in good shape during the next
week. We hate writing lousy fishing reports but facts are facts.
03/19/16 There is a chance of showers just about every day for the next week, and the river
level is very high now. It doesn't look like there will be much opportunity this coming week,
but you should keep a close watch on the levels. The could drop down to where it could be
fished. The water is warm and fishing would be great if it were not for the high water levels.
03/26/16 The river is finally down low enough and clear enough to fish it for steelhead. They
are distributed throughout the river and including the upper river above Service Creek.
Nymphing and swinging flies are both catching fish.
04/09/16 The stream is still flowing high and dingy. There a a lot of fish in the river if the
stream levels would co-operate. There is little rain in the forecast for this coming week, and
we have high hopes of that happening.
04/23/16 The stream levels is still a little high but falling and not that far above normal. There
is almost no rain in the forecast for the next week, or not until next Wednesday. The levels
should continue to drop and the fishing get better. Steelhead are scattered throughout the
river and some are being caught.
05/07/16 The problem with the river the past two weeks has been high water levels but the
river id down and in pretty good shape now. Anglers are catching steelhead in the upper part
above Service creek. Smallmouth bass fishing is good in the lower section of the river.
05/21/16 The stream level at McDonald Ferry is at 2520 cfs at 3.93 ft., which is below normal
but great for fly fishing for smallmouth bass. Our customers have been catching a lot of them
mostly on streamers and crayfish imitations.
05/28/16 Two more good reports on smallmouth bass fishing. Stream levels are in good
shape and the bass are taking top water popping bugs and streamers. Trout fishing in the
upper section of the river is also very good. Lots of insects are hatching and the few fishing
for them are doing well.
06/15/16 We received two good reports of some nice trout being caught this past week.
Smallmouth bass fishing below Kimberely has been great the past two week. There has been
some stain in the water that affected them, but chartreuse Stealth bombers and yellow
streamers like the Tequeely have still produced well.
07/01/16 The river is running low, which is normal for this time of the year. Smallmouth bass
fishing is as good as it gets right now. The fish are taking top water popping bugs, stealth
bombers, tequeely streamers and a number of other smallmouth bass flies very well. We still
recommend fishing below Kimberly.
07/23/16 Low stream levels make it difficult to impossible to float the river at the current low
levels. Small pontoon and inflatable drift boats can navigate it pretty well. Float tubes also
work well in places. The smallmouth bass fishing is excellent, provided you can move around
in the low water.
08/20/16 It is back about as hot at it gets and the water is very low, flowing at 49 cfs, at 1.78
ft. Boats like small one man pontoons might work but otherwise, wading it it. The smallmouth
bass fishing is excellent. Our baby Popping bug size 6, is catching a lot of them early and
late in the day. During the middle of the day, fish the crayfish patterns in the deepest water.
09/03/16 Smallmouth bass fishing continues to be very good with large numbers being
caught. Fish the river downstream of Kimberly. The Perfect Fly Baby Popping bug is catching
them early and late in the day. During the day, use one of the Perfect fly Crayfish patterns.
They tend to hold from two the four feet deep.
09/17/16 Popping bugs continue to take smallmouth from the surface. It is best during low
light conditions. During the day, diving frog flies and our dumbbell eye Crayfish are working
best. Some of our customers are reporting catching as many as 50 bass a day. The cooler
weather should help keep the fish active.
10/01/16 It has rained a little and the stream levels are up just a little but still well below
normal. Smallmouth fishing has continued to be very good. Our customers are catching large
numbers on popping bugs early and late in the day, and our Crayfish patterns during the
day. The weather is going to be much cooler and there are some chances of rain.
10/08/16 The river is up a good bit but still low for this time of the year. It can be fished from
small boats though. Smallmouth bass fishing should improve because of that but it has been
very good considering the low water levels. Most likely, the Crayfish patterns will work best
this coming week.
10/23/16 The stream levels have been up for a change and we didn't receive any reports of
catches this past week. They are back down in good shape now and conditions for
smallmouth bass fishing should be excellent. Let us hear from you.
11/05/16 The stream levels are back up high again. You can fish from a drift boat. The rain
should end today and the stream begin to fall again. There are no reports of any steelhead
showing up yet. Smallmouth bass fishing has continued to be good.
11/19/16 Steelhead are in the lower river. Fish below Service Creek. The stream levels are
back down to a normal level for this time of the season. Smallmouth bass fishing continues to
be good. Our Perfect fly Crayfish patterns, especially the dumbbell eye version, is working
11/26/16 the stream levels remain in good shape and steelhead are being caught below
Service creek in decent numbers. Swinging, nymphing and egg flies are working. Smallmouth
bass can still be caught. We recommend the dumbbell eye crayfish for them.
12/10/16 Our customers are still catching good numbers of steeelhead in the lower river
below Service Creek. Eggs and steelhead Nymphs are working best at this time. Swinging
was better when the water was up more. It is currently below normal but on the way back up.
Smallmouth bass fishing is still good as week.
12/17/16 The river is in good shape with enough water to drift the lower section below
Service Creek. There are still good numbers of steelhead being caught. Swinging and SH
nymphs are working. When swinging, fish dark shades of flies on cloudy, overcast days and
light shade flies on bright sunshine days.
12/30/16 More good reports come in this past week. There are good numbers of wild
steelhead being caught in the lower river. The water is a tad lower than last week, but still
okay. Most fish are coming on Steelhead nymphs, but some are being caught be persistent
01/07/17 The cold weather and low water temperatures have just about shut the river down.
We do not recommend making a trip to fish until the weather warms some. There is too much
solid and slush ice.
01/14/17 The high temperature most days this coming week will be below freezing, which
means there won't be any improvement in the water temperature. There is a lot of ice. There
is some rain forecast later next week with warming temps into the high thirties and low forties.
Hopefully, there will be an improvement later next week. We didn't receive any reports of
catches this past week.
01/21/17 We did receive one report from the past week. The water still has some ice along
the banks and slush and floating ice in the water in places. There are steelhead scattered
upstream to Kimberly. Nymphs are the best flies to use. Our Black SH, Green sedge SH, and
Cinnamon Sedge SH flies should work good. The water average from 33 to 35 degrees.
01/28/17 The river is getting into very good condition. The water is clearing up good and the
levels down in good shape. Most of the ice is gone in the main stem and the steelhead are
most likely spread throughout the system. Swinging and nymphing should work. We don't
have any catch reports yet, but are sure to get some soon.
01/04/17 The main stem is open and steelhead are being caught. You will probably see
some chunks of ice floating down the river. The North Fork is just beginning to break up.
Swinging and Nymping both produced a few fish this past week according to one customer.
02/11/17 The river is very high and needs to drop down to be safe to fish. There are plenty
of steelhead in the river, so fish as soon as the levels get down. Much of the ice is gone in
the main stream. It is melting fast in the North Fork as well.
02/18/17 The flows are at 12,900 cfs at 8.21 feet. That is very high and too high to fish. The
main river is clearing of ice in the lower sections. Steelhead are scattered throughout the
river up to Kimberely. You will just have to watch the stream levels and fish when it drops
02/25/17 The flows are high, flowing at 6790 cfs at 5.92 feet. High temperatures range from
37 to 41 degrees this coming week, so there should be a big ice problem. Watch the levels
and fish as soon as they get a little lower.
03/04/17 The levels are back down to normal flows and the water in much better condition
with little ice. Fish are being caught upstream as far as Kimberely. Now is a good time to fish
03/18/17 The stream is blown out in all sections. All you can do is to check back with us and
watch the levels. The water is very muddy.
04/01/17 The flows at 12,300 cfs at 8.00 ft. While you can fish the river when it is high and
free of ice, it is not realistic to do so at these levels. It is falling. Keep checking back with us.
04/15/17 The stream levels are still high, running a about a third above the normal level. It is
too high to wade but can be fished from drift boats. We didn't receive any reports from the
05/13/17 The flows are currently at 7540 cfs at 6.34 ft., and the water much clearer. That is
still a little high, too high to be waded, but it can be fished from a boat. Smallmouth Bass
fishing should be good.
05/27/17 Conditions continue to be good. The stream levels are up some from last week, but
still okay for drift boats. It is a little too high to wade. Smallmouth bass fishing is excellent
right now and should continue for the next few months.
06/03/17 The stream levels are still a little too high to wade safely in most places but
excellent conditions for b boats. The smallmouth are starting to take popping bugs from the
surface according to one customer.
06/10/17 The smallmouth fishing is going good. The stream levels are down to just a little
above normal levels and wading is possible in some places and not in others. We received
two good reports this past week. Poppers and our Crayfish patters are working good.
06/17/17 The river is in good shape with good stream levels and clear water. Smallmouth
bass are being caught and in good numbers. Our crayfish patters are producing along with
the poppers fished early and late in the day. Both bank and boat anglers are scoring.
07/15/17 The stream levels are still low but in good shape for wading anglers and small boat.
High numbers of smallmouth are being caught. Most of the fish are 9 to 12 inches, not as
large as those of most eastern streams but far more plentiful.
08/03/17 The river is low and the water warm. Smallmouth bass fishing is as good as it gets
with lots of fish being caught by the few anglers fishing. PF poppers and stealth bombers.
09/03/17 Smallmouth bass fishing is still red hot. We good reports from customers fishing
very often. Fish poppers early and late and our crayfish patterns during the day.
09/18/17 The river is still very low. Smallmouth bass fishing is still excellent. We received two
good reports this past week from customers. Fish poppers early mornings and our crayfish
patterns during the day.
09/28/17 There are summer steelhead being caught in the lower river. Stream levels are up
some but falling. Smallmouth bass fishing continues to be good upstream to Kimberly.
10/12/17 The stream levels are in good shape just a little above normal level. Steelhead are
being caught in decent numbers in the lower river. Smallmouth bass fishing continues to be
good as well.
02/05/18 Stream levels are still a little high but the river can be and is being fished. A few
summer steelhead are being caught. Swinging flies and Nymphs are both working.
02/19/18 There has been little change the past week. The stream levels are in good shape
at a normal level. The water is cold and the steelhead a little sluggish. Nymphing is working
02/26/18 The river is running a little low and clear and quite cold. The steelhead are a little
sluggish. Nymphing should be the best approach. Eggs may work okay.
03/06/18 The stream levels are still very low and the water cold. Steelhead are a little
lethargic. Eggs and nymphs should be the best bet.
04/06/18 Stream levels are a little above normal and falling. Few anglers are fishing.
Steelhead are scattered throughout the river but in low numbers. Smallmouth bass fishing
should get better when the water warms up a little.
04/23/18 The stream is 3440 cfs at 4.47 ft., or running below normal, but in good shape for
smallmouth fishing from a small boat or wading. Stealth Bombers, our Crayfish patterns and
Poppers, especially the Chartreuse ones.
05/01/18 There are still some summer steelhead in the river. Smallmouth bass fishing is
good. There's little top water action yet, but our crawfish patterns are catching good
05/08/18 Smallmouth bass are being caught in good numbers. Some are being taken on
popping bugs and Stealth bombers, but most on our Crayfish patterns.
05/15/18 Conditions for smallmouth bass fishing remain very good. There is good top water
popping bug action. Stream levels are still low.
07/08/18 The river is running a little below normal level but in good shape otherwise.
Smallmouth bass are being caught in good numbers. Our new foam Bass poppers are
working good. Fish early and late in the day.
08/21/18 Conditions remain about the same.The river is very low, too low for any boats.
Smallmouth bass fishing is good where you can get to them.
10/29/18 The stream levels are still a little low but all but the largest boats re able to get
around. Bank fishing is good provided you have good access. Smallmouth bass fishing is still
12/22/18 Sorry for the missed reports. The stream levels are up and it is okay for boats in
the lower river. Lots of wild steehead are entering the river and we are getting some good
reports. What the stream levels but fish as soon as you can. It should be good.
01/07/19 Conditions remain the same. Stream levels are currently a little low,and it depend
on the type of boat you use as to whether you can navigate the river. There are plenty of
wild steelhead being caught and released.
01/27/19 Currently, conditions are very good but the stream levels vary some making it
non-boat friendly at times. There are lots of steelhead in the river and good numbers are
02/03/19 The river has been up for almost the past week and lots of steelhead were caught.
It is back below normal and some boats may not work, so be sure you check the stream
02/10/19 The river has been up but back down again to a normal level. We received one
good report this past week.
03/10/19 The river is near a normal level and steelhead fishing should be good with the
warmer weather. They are plenty in the middle and upper sections of the river.
05/14/19 The river is still flowing at a high level, too high to wade anywhere. It is also stained
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