by Dave Scadden

The heavy current pulled hard through the head of the rapid sending me headlong into the tongue of the turbulent flows of the river.  I braced my left leg into the lean bar of my boat and applied pressure to the pontoons straightening it out just in time for the coming bend that lie ahead.  I reached down and gave a few tugs on the oars to set up for the tail-out below.  The long tail-out looked prime with a two hundred yard seam line.  It had a structure-studded shoreline that had big smallies written all over it.

 I hit my anchor release sending the 20 lb. chain anchor to the bottom.  Feeling the gravel bottom on the end of the rope I pulled the anchor up a foot and set the rope in the cleat. My boat instantly swung into position and I made three false casts that launched the 350-grain line to the protected eddy just below the jagged shoreline.   My chartreuse and white outlaw minnow hit the surface of the secluded pocket with a soft splash and disappeared into the depths.  I didn’t even have time to make my first strip on the fly line when I felt a telltale “ tick”… instinctively I set the hook.  The placid pool exploded.  

For years I have had the privilege of touring the country doing clinics and seminars promoting the sport of pontoon craft fishing.  Everywhere I travel I am surrounded by cool fisheries and resources.  The steelhead rivers of the northwest the bass lakes of the south the blue ribbon trout streams of Montana… the list goes on and on.  As the list grows so does my personal list of places I want to fish.  One of my “A” list destinations for years has been the John Day River in central Oregon.  Ever since my first introduction to river smallmouth on the upper Mississippi in Minnesota a few years ago, I have fallen in love with the bronze bombshells.  I have caught countless lake smallies over the years on lakes but add a little current to an already hot fish and you have a force to be reckoned with.   Everywhere I travel when the topic of smallmouth bass comes up, the John Day River is the sought after destination. 

My trip to the John Day started with a 10-hour road trip the first week of June.  I wanted to be on the river when the notorious big fish of the river are most active.  This means late May early June and high water flows.  Area guides will point out that this time of year is not the best time for fly-fishing on the river.  Most of them are setting their clients up with 1/2 oz. tackle to handle the heavy flows and off color water.  Of course my answer to this scenario is to break out my Sage largemouth and smallmouth rods and make sure the Cliffs Bugger Beast boxes are well stocked and secure in the side pockets of my boat.

My good friend Steve Fleming of Mah-Hah Outfitters from Fossil, Oregon met us on the river with some hot breakfast burritos and gave us the lowdown before embarking on a previously booked guide trip with clients.  He told us that the water had just barely dropped to a manageable level and the fish had moved in along the edges.  We pushed off at first light from the Service Creek launch ramp and set our GPS for the Twickenham Bridge 13 miles downstream.  The water was still up in the willows along the edges and the rapids were legitimate class 2 making it a fun and challenging float, especially considering that much of our fishing was done while standing up to cover the water effectively. 

I diligently tried all of the “ tried and true” patterns that consistently produce fish on the river. Cone head wooly buggers, Clowser minnows and  Zonkers.  All of them produced fish…but no big fish.  It became obvious that the heavy off color flows of the river demanded more. I finally dug into the Bugger Beast and tied on my big 1/8 oz. Outlaw minnows. I have tied the Outlaw for years and it has become my go-to fly for big fish and demanding conditions.  It incorporates all of the characteristics of some of the most proven flies of all time.  In a nutshell it is an inverted Zonker, wooly bugger and Clowser Minnow all rolled into one.  Black, purple, chartreuse, white and root beer all worked extremely well depending on the changing light conditions throughout the day.  Bottom line, the big fish loved it.

 The best technique was to cast as close to the bank as possible and instantly throw a mend in the line to allow for a drag free descent.  The Outlaw minnows are heavily head weighted and with the help of a Duncan loop knot in my 12 lb. tippet they drop freely to the bottom.  Most of the strikes occurred on the descent.  Close attention had to be paid to the line both in sight and feel.  The distinctive “ tick” of a smallmouth inhaling your fly is unmistakable but is surprisingly subtle.  Most anglers miss the strike.  Any hint of a tick on your line or a rubber band feeling on the end of your line should be followed up with an aggressive strike.

 Because of the heavy flows the fish were stacked along the shorelines. The best approach was to stand up on my Avenger pontoon boat, drop the chain anchor just off the bottom to moderate my drift and pound the back eddies and seam lines along the edges. The fish were in very predictable spots and hungry from a long winter.  If the shoreline structure looked like a fish should be there it usually was.  I also used my Omega fins to work the sections that were too rocky to maneuver standing up.  Many times I would drag one of my fins to slow the drift, thus giving me several shots at promising cover.  There are two key drifts on the John Day that seem to be the most popular.  The stretch from Service Creek to Twickenham Bridge - 13 miles and the stretch from Service Creek to Clarno - 72 miles.  The lower stretch is world renown for its stunning scenery and a spectacular 5-day float.  This section is on my must do list for next year and I can’t wait to tie into another one of those arm wrenching brawlers of the backwaters!  John Day smallies are addicting.

 The serenity of a peaceful morning was broken by the wild acrobatics of the big John Day smallmouth that had inhaled my white /chartreuse Outlaw minnow. I doubled the rod to keep him from running into the adjacent willows and breaking me off.  No sooner had I turned him from the willows that he swirled and shot out into the heavy current.  I quickly edged my boat into the heavy flow to give chase.  Together we battled our way downstream until I could work him into a calm back-eddy and carefully bring him to hand.  This is what I came for… the nice 20-inch bronzeback finned toward my boat and slipping my thumb into his lower lip I held him high.  What a fish!  I knew there were bigger fish in the river but I couldn’t have been happier.  So many times when the camera is rolling the fish seem to know and things shut down.  On the John Day however this was not the case.  I quit counting at 50 fish and just enjoyed the rest of the day hooking and landing fish.  What a phenomenal fishery!  I will definitely be back for more.


Dave Scadden  


Special thanks to Craig Oberg, Dick & Sandy Johnson,  Leanne & Herb Ross and Steve Fleming