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
the river.

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.
Type of Stream

Steelhead (Wild)
Chinook Salmon (Wild)
Dolly Varden
Redband rainbow trout
Bull Trout
Westslope Cutthroat Trout


Northeastern Oregon

Nearest Towns

Varies by species. See current


Non-Resident License
State of Oregon

National Weather Service

Fly Fishing Gear, Tackle and Flies

USGS Stream Flow Data:
Near McDonald Ferry
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with the dates you will be fishing this
stream and we will send you a list of our
fly suggestions. Please allow up to 24
hours for a response.

2. Call us 800-594-4726 and we will help
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Headlines: 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.
Keep up with the latest information
by clicking the above link to our
John Day River fishing report.
Fishing Report Highlight Archive:
Current John Day River Fishing  Report
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
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
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.
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