Fishing and Floating the John Day River

Basalt cliff on the John Day River

I’ve never had any interest in fly fishing for carp, but when you float down a slow, lazy river in the baking heat on a stand up paddle board for a few days, the idea starts to seem like a good one. They swim in the murkiest, calmest, warmest pockets of water on the John Day, cruising below my SUP with the confidence of small sharks.

We were fishing for small-mouthed bass. I was fishing poppers, the most adorable fishing flies ever made. I went a little crazy before the trip and over-stocked up, so whenever a popper helped me catch a few fish I would switch to another one and see if it would also work. I found the smallies went for most things. Failures were of size and possibly color, and in my case, presentation. And meanwhile, the carp began to seem like an interesting challenge. They were 2’ long, at least, and not even slightly interested in anything I cast in their direction. I asked some of the more experienced folks on the trip how to catch a carp. “Carp are jerks,” our trip photographer told me. She gave me some advice about waiting for them to feed, but admitted it had taken her three years to catch one (with only intermittent attempts). One of the guides gave me some tips, but it was clear he thought it was a nutty project. By day three, people were shouting across the river, “Hey Laurel, here’s a carp!” There was no shortage, but only once did a carp show any interest in what I was casting, a long, orange, old-school fly, possibly a shrimpy imitator. As the carp looked at it, a smallie swooped in and bit it.

Without a doubt my favorite moment of the trip was on the second night. The day had been a little cooler, we were in a campsite with a stunning view, a small island to paddle around, and deeper water to swim. Cocktails were flowing at the dinner table and a couple of us talked about mousing for bass once the sun went down. Our guide offered to row and we took a raft across the river for a lap around the island and a turn at the rock wall. We threw mouse-like flies, trying to guess what a mouse would do, and say, as it ran across the water. We laughed and giggled, drank beers and whiskey. My incredibly lifelike mouse was deemed too large and I switched to a smaller mouse fly and almost immediately caught my largest bass of the trip. Another one soon followed, and as we rowed back to camp I caught 2 or 3 more. It was a mouse feeding-frenzy!

On this three day, slow-water trip… just catching fish and paddling a SUP (the outfitters moved camp and made really tasty meals for us)… there was plenty of time to sink into the sparse and gorgeous landscape. There wasn’t much else to think about: Where are the rest of the people in my group? When is lunch/dinner? Am I drinking enough water, do I need more sunscreen, should I try a different fly? Mostly, I just paddled and fished and enjoyed the small rapids.

I haven’t got the slightest idea how many fish I caught, other than plenty. I saw osprey, heard nighthawks, was thoroughly saturated with sun and beer and unexpected social encounters. There was no glimmer of cell coverage. No thought of current events. At some point it occurred to me that we all take ourselves much too seriously, and then went back to fishing.

On the third day, I floated into a slow, stagnant pool and saw a smallish carp flipping around in some shallow, weedy water. It looked stuck. I hopped off my board and lifted him out of the weeds and into the deeper water a few feet away. He had a small wound on his shoulder (I know fish don’t have shoulders, but you get what I mean), but I watched him swim away. So, I guess I did catch a carp after all. With my bare hands.

Laurel Hunter

Laurel Hunter

Central Oregon, USA