John Day River Trip

Discussion in 'Trip Reports with Pics' started by Jim Henderson, Jun 10, 2009.

  1. Jim Henderson

    Jim Henderson Member

    John Day River Trip - Clarno to Cottonwood (about 70 river miles)

    Put-in on 6/2/09 - takeout on 6/7/09
    Drifted the Clarno to Cottonwood section of the John Day River in central Oregon looking for smallmouth bass.

    Day One – Put-in at Clarno. This is very good put-in with lots of space for parking and launching your boat. Hooked a few fish and had a few unanticipated adventures. River flow at the start of the trip was about 3400 cfs which seemed just about perfect for a drift boat (aluminum 16 foot River Wolf). About five river miles into the trip is the main drop at Clarno rapid. Rapid was scouted - excellent eddy to pull out in on the left after the hard left turn followed by a right turn. Ran the rapid as follows – kept to the left side, stayed just to the right of three rocks in a row (actually small hydraulics at this flow). Each rock is about 15 or so feet out from the left bank leading into the main drop. After passing the last rock maneuvered to hit the tongue straight on – main current pushes you towards the center so have to work to stay on line. Three big bounces and was through the difficult part.
    Camped the first night at Mulberry, river mile 104, which is just below the last of Clarno rapids. Camp site is on the right side – very nice location with room for a number of tents. While setting up camp got back in the boat and rescued canoe/swimmers that capsized in lower Clarno rapid. Fortunately they were not injured after a long swim and they had all their gear well secured in the canoe.

    Day two – sunny with great fishing, went about 13 miles and camped at river mile 91. Very nice camp site up on the right bank with excellent fishing out front.

    Day three – rescued another capsized canoe just as we were getting ready to launch that morning. Got one paddler/swimmer to the beach in front of the camp and followed the canoe/swimmer down through the rapid and got him and canoe out on the left bank. Used the drift boat bowline as the tow rope to pull swimmer and boat to the shore. No injuries and no gear lost. Another great day of fishing – used a weighted black fly with white rubber legs for sub surface action and a white popper for surface work. Both seemed to work equally well. Best areas seemed to be the calmer water along steep rocky shore lines. Actually there are so many fish in the river it is difficult to say just what kind of structure is best for targeting the smallmouth.
    Saw the aftermath of a large forest fire along the left bank of the river, some areas were still smoking. A number of good campsites seemed to have been swept by the fire. Lightening was reported as the cause of the fire.
    After a long day camped near river mile 67 on the right side. Another nice camp.
    Serious thunder and lightening during the night with torrential downpour – must have put whatever was left of the fire out! Also turned the river into brown mud soup. So much for the fishing.

    Day four – Spent the day at the same camp getting everything dried out and catching up on some reading.

    Day five – More spectacular scenery. The John Day River canyons are something to behold and worth the trip. Throw in non-stop smallmouth action and this is an incredible experience – assuming the river does not blow out and turn to the consistency of chocolate milk. Camped near river mile 46 on the right. Serious upstream winds in the afternoon. Set up dome tent and tied everything else down – chairs, portable loo, life jackets, etc. Tied a big rope loop to a tree and used carabineers to latch on various items. Wind gusts so strong while setting up tent that at one point the whole thing was actually flattened before I was able to get the rain fly on and all the guy lines nailed down. Really something to see a dome tent flatten then pop back up when the gust dies down. Cold dinner eaten in the tent while listening to the wind gusts howl. Rain fly stabilized the tent as indicated in the directions – set-up directions sewn into tent bag and I actually read them!

    Day six – take out at Cottonwood.

    There is a very good river guide put out by the Bureau of Land Management entitled “John Day River Recreation Guide – Kimberly to Tumwater Falls”. The guide includes maps, camp sites with GPS coordinates, and general information about the river. Guide is available from the BLM – Site also has phone numbers of local people who offer shuttle service.

    Highly recommend this trip for the fishing and the scenery. Clarno is the major rapid of concern at about river mile 104. If in a drift boat you should be experienced on the oars and able to read the water to pick your line. Basalt rapid at mile 93 is also challenging as there are no real good landmarks leading in. Around the 3000 cfs water level you need to maneuver to avoid small hydraulics and rocks. Camp sites are plentiful with numerous flat spots for pitching a tent – suggest a small tarp (10 ft x 12 ft) for shade/rain protection. There are rattle snakes in the canyon, the only snake I saw was swimming across the river. I did not wander far from the main camp sites as I am not particularly fond of snakes.
    Fishing – used 4wt rods, floating lines, with both surface poppers and sinking flies. Smallmouth do not seem to be very particular about what they will hit. Wind can be a problem in the afternoon. During the trip it was gusty so you could time your cast – if the wind blew the fly somewhere other that the intended target it was good to pull in a few strips as there seem to be fish just about everywhere.

    Jim Henderson
  2. Mike Ediger

    Mike Ediger Active Member

    Jim, Thanks for the report. Any idea what mile-marker the town of spray is? I will be there mid-July. It will be a totally different river with flows near 500cc, but I hear the smallies are just as willing. We will stay at spray and fish above and below with 'toons each day. Just curious if you went by there and what the water was like. This will be my first trip.
  3. flybill

    flybill Purveyor of fine hackle, wine & cigars!


    Great detailed report on your time out there! Thanks for sharing!

    Amazing that you had to rescue two boats and people! Were they experienced or just unlucky when they flipped?

    Bill :beer2:
  4. cabezon

    cabezon Sculpin Enterprises

    Jim, that's just a great detailed report. Thank you for taking the time. A multi-day float, like yours, is on my to-do list. Your experience will be very valuable.

  5. FLGator

    FLGator Member

    Great report! Thanks for taking the time to share.
  6. Gary Thompson

    Gary Thompson dirty dog

    Great report, always wanted to drift/fish the John Day
  7. Jim Henderson

    Jim Henderson Member

    The Spray campground is at river mile 171, the town of Spray is downstream at about mile 170.5. From the BLM John Day River Recreation Guide map it looks like there should be easy access to the river at a number of locations downstream from the campground as the road parallels the river just below the town. Above Spray campground the river diverges from the road and it looks like the first good launch point would be around river mile 176 where the road again joins the river. This section looks like a very nice stretch of river to float, away from the highway with some nice canyon scenery and hopefully good fishing.
  8. Jim Henderson

    Jim Henderson Member

    Rescued boaters did not look like they had a lot of experience in whitewater, class 2 rapids. They did have their life jackets on and their gear well secured in the canoes so they were ready for some whitewater. Running a loaded open canoe, without a spray skirt, in class 2 rapids requires some skill. The canoes I actually saw flip got dumped by a curling wave coming off a rock wall on the outside of a bend.
  9. Mike Ediger

    Mike Ediger Active Member

    That is exactly what I was told. We put in about 5 miles upstream of the campground and float right back to I am glad you think it looks like a nice stretch of river. We will also float from the CC down 5-6 miles.
    I absolutely can't wait. Thanks for looking that up. I should look into getting that map from the BLM.
    Thanks for the info.:beer2:
  10. JD7

    JD7 New Member

    We deer hunt near Spray every year. Check your private property as there is a fair bit around, but I think pontoons will be fine. Be prepared to do a little walking due to low water (probably by mid July, definately in Aug and Sept). The bass should be in good topwater/popper mode by that time. Loaded with bass, many are small 7-8 inches. Last year we upsized our flies and found that helped. Bass eat BIG flies.
  11. StiffLegged Van Rossi

    StiffLegged Van Rossi Gonzo Phishin'

    Great report!!!! I just got back from a 4 day float from Service Creek to Clarno and had good fishing as well. Just a FYI for everyone out there Clarno rapid is a class III and above 6000 cfs it is class IV. It can develop some very large holes that I have seen take down 15 foot self-bailing rafts and driftboats. From what I hear most people in open Canoes stay away from it unless they are VERY experienced. If you go under it is a LONG swim 1/2+ miles.
  12. Shapp

    Shapp Active Member

    Seeing as how we are heading into the mid and lower water season on the John Day, I think it best to advise on lower water conditions of Clarno. It is actually most difficult at lower water. I suppose if you chose to punch a hole at high water (like 6000 cfs) then it would be a class IV, but at high water the big holes in Clarno are easily missed. However, a scout is always warranted so you can evaluate the hazards and pick a your own line.
    At low water, Clarno is most difficult (below 1000 cfs) espeically in a driftboat or larger raft, where it is a class IV boulder maze with significant pin/breach hazards.

    At flows from about 1800 to 2400, hit the main slot and risk smashing the VW bus sized rock in the main slot or cheat to the far right and bounce through smaller boulders. Over 2400 to 3500 go through main slot left of center and over the top of the VW rock. From 1100 to about 1800 run to far right and pick through the rock garden and keep your boat speed down. Below about 1000 consider lining a drift boat if you are not good at technical water.
  13. markhighlife

    markhighlife New Member

    Greetings all, nice site and forum.

    Question for Shapp, Jim or anyone else.

    Doing our first driftboat float on the JD this Sunday - Thursday; the 21st - 25th. Doing the Clarno to Cottonwood float. 3 drift boats with lots of experience and orr time. We have done the Grande Ronde 20+ times, including the narrows everytime. Don't think there is too much to worry about with the Clarno rapids but just thought I would ask if there is any last minute advise or opinions. Looks like we are going to be looking at 1500 -1200 cfs, seems a bit skinny to me, but one never knows.

    Thanks in advance.:beer2:

  14. Shapp

    Shapp Active Member

    I am sure you will be fine, have a scout of Clarno though to pick your own line, make sure you get the BLM map. Don't be a fool like a lot of drift boaters and make sure to wear a PFD. Fish on!
  15. Jim Henderson

    Jim Henderson Member

    Very good advice from Shapp. I have run Clarno in a drift boat at about 1500 cfs. My line, left side of the river, was just to the left of the big rock creating the right boundary of the tongue leading into the drop. As you enter the drop in there should be enough water flow to form a cushion on the rock which is just about in the middle of the chute. Keep track of your left oar and you should be fine.
    Have fun!
  16. Shapp

    Shapp Active Member

    One more thing - stay one more night
  17. markhighlife

    markhighlife New Member

    Good stuff and thanks very much guys, appreciate the input.

    Ya, we have seen many a driftboater not wearing their PDF's over the years when going through the rapids and always just shake our heads. We lost our clackacraft 16' on the Ronde in 1999 in the narrows. Put in a little high, 6000+ cfs, and it rained like a mother one night and by the time we got to the narrows it was...well....big. Droped in the hole perfectly, but then it was just a wall of water in the face and arses and elbows in the drink. Checked it when we got home and it was over 8000 cfs. We swam, er...floated out of that one with just our shorts, keens on our feet and our PDF's, not something I would like to repeat anytime soon.

    One more night Shapp? We are driving over tomorrow morning and putting in around noon and plan to camp Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night and take out Thursday afternoon. Make sense or are we trying to cram to much into the milage??

    Thanks again guys!!
  18. Shapp

    Shapp Active Member

    If you are fishing a lot stay 5 nights on the river, and if it is good you will want another night!