This story originally appeared in the Spring 2014 print edition.
By Allen Bushnell
By now, I'm used to my partner Allen Sansano inviting me on random spur-of-the-moment kayak fishing adventures. He spent years traveling the world in search of big tuna before he saw a guy fishing from a kayak and decided to try it for himself.
Well, that guy was me and Sansano will owe me forever, though the balance due is shrinking. We've shared numerous trips to Mexico, Panama, and Alaska, and it didn't surprise me at all when he called with plans for a hush-hush hurry-up trip. The only curveball was the destination.
"Fifty miles on the John Day River," he began.
I'm thinking, where is the John Day River, anyway?
"High desert, Eastern Oregon. Runs through a 1,000-foot gorge with rapids, wildlife, and more smallmouth bass per mile than anywhere!"
Sounds good so far.
"We are looking at 100-plus fish per day."
"Count me in," I say.
The John Day is the third-longest undammed river in America, stretching more than 280 miles before dumping into the mighty Columbia River. We would paddle and fish from the private "30-Mile" put-in to the Cottonwood Bridge takeout 44 miles downstream.
I'm the only guy in our group of six who has no river kayaking experience. Sansano assures me that there's nothing more than mild riffles on our route. He should have saved his breath. I fish offshore in Northern California. I'm no stranger to moving water.
I'm confident enough to launch first, and the river quickly sweeps me into the first turn, my kayak accelerating as the placid green water grows frothy and hidden boulders hint their presence behind bulging shoulders of standing waves. I take an inside line and am surprised when my boat catches the corner of an eddy and spins me involuntarily into the slack water.
The spot looks good, so I pull the boat up on the gravel bank and commence to fishing. Throwing a 1/8-oz. leadhead with a three-inch worm, I hook fish after fish, each in the 10- to 12-inch range. The strong little smallmouth are incredibly aggressive, fighting amongst each other to grab my lure. I think, This is going to be fun, as I watch the others sail through the first set of rapids. Brian Steves, braver than most, takes the first drop standing up. It looks easy.
I scramble to catch the crew, now rapidly disappearing downriver and around the next bend. The rapid's very first rock catches my boat broadside. Just like that, I'm pinned. My instincts tell me to raise the rail downstream, as if I am surfing in on an ocean wave. Wrong! In a heartbeat I am upside-down.
When I struggle the boat to shore, I've lost my tackle box, two of my three rods, my paddle, even my bag of snacks and drinking water. The rod that I'm holding is snapped in half.
Lord, just let me find my paddle so I can catch up.
I walk downstream. A golden glow in the middle of the river turns out to be my Plano box, all tackle freshly rinsed, thank you. With an orange here, and a water bottle there, I make a couple little piles of gear Then, like a mirage in the shimmering heat I spy a figure walking toward me along the bank. It's Mark Veary and he's holding my paddle. "I saw an orange float by and thought 'Bushy might need some help.'"
Veary is an experienced river paddler. A true waterman, he dives repeatedly to recover my gear. In the end, I am only down one rod. My bonus prize is spending the remainder of the afternoon learning how to run the rapids.
"Follow the V," Veary tells me. At the head of each rapid the glassy surface forms a V shape as the current compresses from the slow pool above to the whitewater below. The water is deepest and runs fastest at the point of the V and is less likely to hide gravel bars and boulders.
"Always try to paddle just a little bit faster than the current is running," he adds, "that way you retain the ability to steer your boat."
Like driving defensively on the freeway, Veary advises me to look ahead for hazards as I enter a rapid—and most importantly, to point your butt at the current. If I keep the upstream rail higher, I can float over almost anything. Even going sideways or backwards, keep the upstream rail up.
I'm a bit gun-shy after my disaster, but a day of following Mark's lead through every little rapid works wonders. By the end of the trip, side-slipping into vortices over gravel slopes becomes something to look forward to rather than fear.
We fish the deeper pools below each rapid. Brian Steves is a quiet sort, a studious marine biologist. When fishing he transforms into a laser-guided missile of concentration. He catches fish after fish on the fly and crankbaits.
"My go-to for smallmouth are 3-inch worms. Black ones are working the best right now. I'm pinning them on a Carolina rig, but a 1/8-ounce leadhead works fine," he says. I dig through my freshly rinsed tackle box and soon match the master one fish for his two.
The gorge is a wonder to behold. The soft-rounded hills of the golden high desert are slashed by the river's course. Most of the vertical cliffs are basaltic columns, volcanic remnants of ancient geology overlaid with sedimentary deposits of an inland sea and millennial layers of volcanic ash. Close by are world-famous fossil beds and canyon walls that feature ancient native pictographs, finger-painted images of animals and forgotten gods.
The dry landscape and hot black rock soaring above us are a stark contrast to the cool green river with its fringe of cottonwood and chaparral. Each turn of the river reveals a new landscape, and each slow section concludes with the roar of another approaching rapid.
Waterfowl take refuge in the slower pools and eddies. Raptors soar overhead, and fat chukkas beeline through the low brush. As we float around a bend we come face to face with a band of bighorn sheep. They gaze at us unafraid before retreating to feed on the nearby talus slopes. What at first seems a rather sterile environment slowly reveals itself as a cornucopia of diverse life and activity.
My companions are fish crazy. It matters not that our largest smallmouth is perhaps 15 inches, caught by Steves in a deep pool along a basalt wall. We never tire of hooking these powerful little bass. I crimp my barbs for easier releases, and to even up the game a bit. One hundred fish per day proves an understatement. One could never keep an accurate count.
Using mostly soft plastics, we find the best results in deeper water, especially the boulder-strewn bottoms. The John Day is so stuffed with smallies that virtually any water produces, including shallow shorelines and the edges of fast-moving rapids.
My favorite is a stretch of frog-water with tule banks. Sansano and I throw top-water plugs for spectacular results. There's nothing better than watching a violent surface take, especially with a good friend to share the fun.
Late on our third day, we are dismayed to catch sight of power lines on a nearby peak. The return to pavement, cell phones and convenience stories will be jarring. We spend the final few miles casting, retrieving and releasing as many John Day smallies as possible before floating under the Cottonwood Bridge that signals the end of the journey.