John Day Birthday Float

The John Day River in a fresh coat of white

The John Day River in a fresh coat of white

Well my birthday falls two days after Christmas and my “giving” employer allows all staff to get a paid day off on their birthday.  This year I strung together the holidays, my birthday, and my remaining “use or loose” time to have a week long winter break.  Actually, I had no choice seeing as the daycare was closed, and locking my kids in the closet with our new cat would not be inline with the holiday spirit whether they needed it our not.  I did however pre-schedule a shuttle on the John Day River from my mom on my birthday.  I was going regardless of the conditions because everyone needs a little adventure on their birthday!!

As you will see in the photos and story below we did have a white Christmas here in Central Oregon with the snow and cold sticking around longer than usual.  Conditions were cold, with temps barely above 32F during the “heat” of the day.  Ice fog persisted all day shrouding the badland peaks along my wild river float.  The shuttle was questionable at best and required my mom to put her new Volvo XC 90 all wheel drive to the test.  It performed.

Awd Volvo XC90 headed back to pavement

Volvo XC90 headed back to pavement

The real issue was not the conditions, but whether or not there was any wild steelhead in the river this year.  Passage at John Day Dam was well below the 10-year average this year with only 61,631 wild steelhead able to navigate the gauntlet of “fish unfriendly” obstacles in the main-stem Columbia River.  The total number of steelhead through the obstacle course and above the John Day Dam by the end of 2012 was 162,083.  It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t for a watershed with millions of fish accessible stream miles and an area over 300,000 square miles.  The 10-year average for steelhead passage at the John Day Dam is 88,062 wilds and 297,088 total.  The graph below puts the 2012 run in perspective.

I would guess that the historical numbers were well in to the millions.  Ouch! The endangered species act restored the bald eagle.  Can it save the iconic summer steelhead?  Please comment.  Are our federal and state agencies upholding their public trust to provide you and me with the resources (steelhead) that we pay taxes to protect, conserve, and restore?  Please comment.  In short the simple premise of the public trust doctrine is that – government must conserve natural resources for the public good.

Read more about the principles of the public trust doctrine at: 

Rather than worry about whether these agencies can provide us with the “tug drug” I suggest buying some solar panels, becoming more self sufficient, and writing a few letters.

JD SteelheadOK enough dismal steelhead politics; back to the float.  Fish were hard to come buy.  I got one good grab and head shake on a swung reverse marabou fly at the end of the trip, but no fish to the bank.  The usual runs held no takers.  Maybe the fish were holding in the deep slow “frog water” runs with the water being so cold.  The only way to fish these runs is with a spinner.  I should have switched up.

Anyway I got a few cool pics and threw in one from a day when the steelies were more receptive to my offerings.

Getting "pumped up"

Getting “pumped up!”

Swinging the first run of the day

Swinging the first run of the day.

Geese were flying.  Should have brought the sky cannon.

Geese were flying. Should have brought the sky cannon.

Searching for the next run

Searching for the next run.

Pure wild pleasure

Pure wild pleasure!

Thanks for reading.

Remember to ask our elected leaders to put some steelhead back in our rivers.

John Day River Spey Rod Steelhead

Today (November 13) was the fifth time I shot line through the guides of my new 13′ 7wt spey rod.  I floated six miles of the John Day River in my canoe in search of late summer run wild steelhead.  Fishing was slow, but I managed to hook and land one fish.  Any true steelheader will tell you one fish is a good day.  I have caught bigger fish, but hooking into one with the spey rod was pretty sweet.

John Day River Wild Steelhead

I managed to greatly improve my two handed casting techniques on this my fifth outing with the two-handed rod.  I chose to leave my more productive jig and bobber rod at home and go all spey with hope of improving my technique and feel that pleasing throb and power of a steelhead at the end of my line.

I worked on my double spey, snap t, and off shoulder double spey casts with varying success.  I am new to spey fishing and chose (like many) to use a skagit setup to speed up the learning curve.  Skagit style spey casting involves a short (25′) shooting head of thick floating line to which you attach a variety of tips (sinking, floating, or a combo sinking/floating).  A leader and fly finish the business end of the set up.   All of which is attached to a smooth level running line and traditional fly line backing.  Skagit casting is based on a sustained anchor technique where the end of the shooting head, tip, leader and fly remain in the water and help created the “D” loop which loads the rod.  The forward stroke sends an aggressive roll cast down the shooting head, lifting out of the water, propelling it across the river at a predetermined angle based on the target water.

I am true low a slow fly fishing guy who has fished big nymphs and streamers deep with success for many years.  The transition to spey fishing was appealing to me because the skagit technique was designed in the Pacific Northwest to cast heavy sink tips and large files.  A technique I have developed an affinity to for catch large trout, salmon, and steelhead on my single-handed rods.  Plus the casting is fun.  It is a bit trendy around these parts.  I try to distance myself from the trendy. but I am a sucker for anything steelhead.

John Day River

The John Day River is ground zero for recovery of wild salmonids in the interior Columbia Basin (a subject I will likely cover in more detail in later posts).  It is a delicate fishery where access to the good water is minimal and the impacts of angling pressure can be great.  Due to its remoteness and seasonality of the fishery its popularity has remained reasonable enough to provide a quality experience.

If you decide to enjoy this gem of a watershed.  Leave no trace of your travels so others can enjoy the same beauty.  Release and handle all wild fish with care while removing any stray hatchery fish from the system.  The John Day River is the last hatchery free wild fish stronghold and sanctuary in the interior Columbia Basin.  These fish have made two incredible journeys to grace you with their presence at the end of your line.  As a juvenile they endured the extreme seasonal hydrology ranging from hot summer base flows to raging spring runoff.  On their downward journey they encountered a maze of irrigation ditches and fish screens along with the mouths of thousands of hungry exotic smallmouth bass.  In the Columbia River those mouths got bigger and more numerous while they figured out the navigation of three mainstem dams.  As adults on their return trip the juveniles that are lucky enough to return endure the same seasonal hydrology, a labyrinth of irrigation and road crossing barriers en route to spawning locations more than 600 miles from the ocean.  A bit of spring rain and snowmelt usually help get them there and sustain their eggs in the gravels of their natal stream until emergence in early summer.

In 2011 we should feel blessed to still have the opportunity to swing a sparsely tied signature intruder through a run shadowed by cliff walls that saw the likes of T. Rex and company in search of the endangered and sometimes elusive wild summer run steelhead.

Set the hook