REMOTE DESERT COUNTRY, primitive camping, and scrappy small-mouth bass make the John Day River in north-central Oregon one of my all-time favorite summer fishing destinations. The best way to enjoy it is a float trip into a roadless section of the 147 miles included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
In June, the high water favored by whitewater rafters fades to lower, warmer flows and the chance for 50-fish days. This month sees a great deal of river traffic, so you’ll find the most solitude and better campsite availability by going during the week.
A good three-day, two-night float with camping, plenty of smallies, and a few whitewater challenges runs about 35 miles from a speck on the map called Twickenham to another tiny spot called Clarno. You can bring your own boat or rent one in the area. Guided trips are also available.
The breakdown at right includes prices–I’ve been able to do this trip for around $450. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management website will also help you get started (go to blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/johnday).
TRANSPORT: The drive from Portland east on Interstate 84, southeast on State Route 206, then south on State Route 19 to Service Creek is about 400 miles round-trip. Figure $55 for fuel.
GETTING STARTED: Come prepared, as this is sparse, service-starved country. Fossil is the last real town you’ll hit for groceries and provisions. Stop at Fossil Hardware & Supply for tackle and licenses–it’s $33 for a three-day Oregon fishing license. If you want to do a guided trip, book it here through Mah-Hah Outfitters (starting at $125 per day; 888-624-9424; johndayriverfishing.com). Your very last stop before hitting the water is the tiny outpost of Service Creek. Eat dinner and bunk the night before at the refurbished 1920s Service Creek Stage Stop (starting at $55 per night, with breakfast; 541-468-3331; servicecreekstagestop.com). Or you can camp at the BLM Service Creek Campground ($5 per night; 541-416-6700). The Service Creek Stage Stop’s boat rental and shuttle service is a block from the river. Kayak, raft, and pontoon rentals run about $95 a day. They’ll also take you to the Twickenham boat launch and shuttle your vehicle to the takeout for $75. There’s a self-sign-in for river floating permits.
ON THE WATER: Bring at least a gallon of H2O per person per day. Carry two rods, one rigged for fishing deep, the other for topwater. When the river is high and off-color, concentrate on clearer water flooding the grass and sloughs near the banks. By July, the heat is on and the bass spread out. I’ve had the best results in the pools below riffles and the worst in the slow frog-water stretches. Be sure to scout the Class II and III rapids beforehand–the John Day River Recreation Guide will help ($5 from BLM in Prineville; 541-416-6700). Inexperienced paddlers should go with the outfitter in Fossil. Campsites are first come, first served. The takeout spot is at the Clarno boat launch.
OFF THE WATER: Be sure to get some pre-history at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Clarno Unit (541-987-2333; nps.gov/joda). It’s 1,969 acres of trails, exhibits, and 44-million-year-old formations.