Updated: Sep 10, 2020
As tradition would have it, this past weekend we headed to the beautiful John Day river for our annual Bass Camp. We have been fishing this river for over 15 years. In the beginning of Bass Camp, when my two sons were little we went fishing every year with master guide and all around great guy Steve Flemming of Mah-Haw Outfitters guide service. If you want to enjoy this river, do yourself a favor and book a trip with Steve. He is an amazing guide and fisherman and provides a five star experience on the river. My two sons and I went with Steve for many years and these are some of the best memories we have together.
One memory in particular was when Thomas was 7 years old and Michael was 5. It was near the end of the day of a 10 hour float in the hot sun, and Michael had dozed off for a minute while holding his rod and drifting a worm behind the boat. Just as he dozed off, a nice smallmouth grabbed his lure, and headed upriver. The result was that it ripped the rod and reel out of Michael's hands and straight into the river. Michael was crushed at the thought of losing his favorite rod and reel, and tears started welling up in his eyes. Big brother Thomas tried to console him, but Michael was a wreck. Seeing Michael in such despair, Steve rowed back up stream, and poked around with his net to see if he could locate the rod. After about ten minutes of searching, and against all odds, Steve found the rod, hoisted it back into the boat and handed it to Michael. Michael gladly took the rod from Steve, and to all of our amazement found that the fish was still on the line!! He reeled in the fish, and I have never seen a happier kid in my life!
Fast forward15 years and it is now Bass Camp 2018. Thomas is working at an incredible college internernship in L.A. and was not able to join us, but we added my brother-in -law, Andy, on the trip. Andy lives in Montana and is an amazing fly fisherman. Andy guided fly fishing trips to pay his way through college at the University of Montana and can run a raft like no other. This would be his first time on the John Day River in a Kayak.
Our plan was for me to leave from Camas early and set up camp in Spray, Oregon. Michael and Andy would drive over from Montana and meet at the camp. We would float from Spray to Service Creek. It is about a 12 mile float and takes at least 11 to 12 hours.
I loaded up my two Jackson Coosa’s and one Coosa HD Kayaks and hit the road to set up camp. I got to Spray about 3:00 and found an ideal spot under the shade of a large tree. Camping at the Spray Riverfront Park is on a first come first serve basis so I was lucky to find this spot. Andy and Michael showed up around 6pm. We unloaded their stuff and headed to Service Creek to drop the shuttle car and get a burger at the Kellie's Service Creek Resort. We got back to camp and hit the rack around 11pm.
After a spartan breakfast we launched the kayaks and were floating down the river at 6:15 am. The CFS was just under 400, and the river was surprisingly muddy. We fished hard till noon, Michael was killing it on a grub and his famous “Gurgler” fly. He had caught over 30 before lunch. Andy and I were catching fish too, just not as many as Michael. We stopped and ate a quick lunch and were soon back on the river.
As luck would have it we were going through a rapid we call "Hugo Falls" and Andy rolled over a large rock and flipped his kayak. Everything was fine except his fly rod sunk to the bottom of the river in at least 12 feet of water. This was the rod that Andy’s Dad (My father in law, and Michael and Thomas' Grandpa) had given to him when Andy was 13 years old and it has a huge sentimental value. We were all very bummed out. We pulled off the river, Andy and Me on one side and Michael on the other to see if we could snag the rod with some 1/4 ounce tube jigs. On my first attempt to see if I could snag the rod, I caught a nice Smallmouth….and so did Andy… and so did Michael! We could hardly get our jigs to the bottom, because every cast we were catching fish - it was by far the best hole of the day! After 10 minutes of this, Andy resigned himself to the fact that the rod was gone, and was ready to move on down river. I said, "lets give it 5 more minutes", and at that exact moment we heard Michael on the other side of the river shout OH…OH…....OH ( we thought he had another fish on), and low and behold he raised his rod tip and pulled that dang fly rod right out of the river! His jig hook had wrapped around the rod blank right where the cork handle meets the blank. Unbelievable. There were lots of shouts and hootin and hollering on the river! After we settled down, we all agreed that Grandpa Greg was looking down on us and decided to help us find the rod. It was a special moment that I will never forget.
We finished off the day by fighting a steady headwind for the last 2 hours and reached the takeout out at 5:30. We were tired and hot but it was a great day. All of us caught over 50 smallmouth bass. We returned to camp for a dinner of steak and potatoes and great conversation. After dinner, we all agreed that we wanted to do a shorter float on Sunday so we could sleep in a bit ( the bite did not really turn on till about 10am anyway). Our plan was to float from the “4 Mile Bridge” to the take out a Service Creek. A much shorter float than the previous day.
As it turned out, this was a great decision. It allowed us much more time to fish the good stretches of river, and we never felt the need to rush. We had figured out that the top water bite was not really happening, so we re-geared to more plastics and some small crank baits for the day. The action was hot right out of the gate. Michael and Andy were both killing it on the crank bait, and I was mopping them up with a tube and a slider head with a grub. This is the John Day River I had come to expect. Multiple doubles, triples and back to back fish for all of us. Andy caught the big fish of the trip, and we all lost count of how many we caught. It was much more enjoyable to do the shorter float, and we all agreed that for bass camp 2019 we will do shorter floats so we can concentrate more on fishing. We pulled off the river at 4 pm, loaded the trucks and said our goodbyes. I was sad to see those guys head back to Montana, but I was very happy for the time we had together. It was a great trip, that like all trips on the John Day, included a little magic. I will never forget the look on Michaels face when he got his favorite rod back with the fish still on it, and I will never forget the look on Andy’s face when he watched his favorite fly rod ascend magically out of the beautiful John Day River.
Thanks for reading.