Stan Fagerstrom

Stan Fagerstrom is a member of both the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as well as the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. Stan is also known internationally for his casting skills. Stan welcomes your e-mail comments at stanfagerstrom@hotmail.com.

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July 02, 2014

The Smallmouth of Steelhead Country - Part 2

by Stan Fagerstrom

I've not fished anywhere in the Pacific Northwest now for years but I know one of the places I'd put on my "Must Do" list if I was to get out there next week.

That place is the one I talked about in my previous column. I'd head for Fossil, Oregon and hook up with my friend Steve Fleming for some smallmouth bass fishing on Oregon's John Day River.


Darn few Pacific Northwest river guides have put their clients on more smallmouth than Steve Fleming. Steve operates Mah-Hah Outfitters out of Fossil, Oregon. The smallmouth one of his clients is holding here is typical of what you can expect on a summertime John Day trip.


Steve has been guiding out of his Mah-Hah Outfitters operation at Fossil now for 25 years. I fished with Steve several times when I lived in that part of the world. The experiences I had then are why I say I'd like to get back again now.

Look at a map of Oregon and you'll find the small community of Fossil located in the central part of the Beaver State. The John Day eventually dumps into the Columbia, but it's that isolated part of this beautiful river on up a ways above Fossil where Steve most often takes his clients.

I mentioned having had the good fortune to experience what Fleming has to offer. One of them is that each time I've been with him, we rarely saw another boat. It's been years since I made my last trip so that might have changed a bit, but I doubt it.

I got an e-mail message from Steve back in March. It was right after he'd hung up his winter steelhead gear and just started guiding for smallmouth bass again. I know darn well you aren't going to find many bass anglers out there on the John Day in March.

The weather and water that early in the Pacific Northwest will leave you with frost on your fingers and maybe on even more tender parts of your anatomy if you're not prepared to deal with it. I lived there for most of my life and I make those comments from personal experience.

Here's what's Steve had to say in that March e-mail I mentioned: "Today we boated an even 30 smallmouth bass in 44 degree water with a 1/8 oz jighead and a Yamamoto 4-inch single #134 tail grub covered with Smelly Jelly garlic. We fished more than 10 different set-ups, but only caught those pesky smallmouth bass on the above described set-up."


Here's a close up of the Yamamoto bait that has caught so many fish for Steve Fleming on the John Day.


As I mentioned in my previous column, Steve had been introduced to that particular Yamamoto grub by a retired Oregon fish biologist named Errol Claire. It has turned out to be one of Steve's most effective lures on the John Day. He loves it and so do those John Day smallmouth fish.

But hold the phone! Remember what I wrote about in my last column dealing with lure makers no longer making the lures you like best? Well friends, that's exactly what Steve found himself dealing with where the #134 4-inch Yamamoto grub is concerned.

Last month, I wrote about the Heddon Tackle Company dropping the Heddon Basser, one of my most effective bass lures on my home lake. However, it wasn't selling well elsewhere, so it was dropped. That was obviously what happened with that Yamamoto grub Steve found so effective on the John Day.

Fortunately, Fleming learned that particular grub was going to be dropped from the Yamamoto lure lineup before it actually happened. "When I learned the #134 was to be dropped," Steve says, "I contacted the company and bought their remaining inventory. I also bought about an equal number of the #134 double tailed grubs."

Yamamoto #134 grubs were a shade of smoke with large red flakes. Today, Steve still uses those he has, but does so sparingly. Sometimes Steve simply removes one of the tails from the double tailed #134 grubs and uses it as a single tail.

Something else Fleming will tell you he learned from his friend Errol Claire was to rig one of his singled tailed #134 grubs as a trailer for use with a white skirted Hildebrandt Pro Series half ounce spinnerbait. The combination has been a big winner for John Day smallmouth.

"This combination," Fleming says, "has produced my largest fish each year since 2009. Some of those fish have won the In-Fisherman Catch & Release contest for the nine Western states."

Fleming uses this spinnerbait-grub combo especially when the river is up and off color. "I've known for a long time," he says, "that when the river color drops and is not clear to go to items with red in them. The #134 Yamamoto grub with the big red flakes is a winner."



It rains a bit in Oregon. Whenever the John Day gets a bit discolored Steve Fleming turns to this spinnerbait and grub combination. It has also caught some of the largest John Day River smallmouth he has put in the boat.


This veteran guide will be among the first to tell you that Yamamoto does continue to offer a single tail grub of a shade similar to the #134. That one is the #178 smoke with black and red flakes. Steve says it is similar but not identical to the one he's using.

So, what's the technique Fleming has found most effective with his favorite grubs on the John Day? "The best technique," he says, "is to cast into the current seam on the slack water side and then very slowly swim it back to the boat. Fish your lure just as close to the bottom as you can. Let the lure bump bottom once in a while. Making three little twitches of the rod tip during the retrieve can also help create interest.

"The most important thing, and also the hardest, is what you should do when you feel a bite. When that happens, immediately lower your rod tip. Larger smallmouths suck a bait in and typically get only the tail of the lure in their mouth when they first pick it up. Once you lower the tip, count to two or three and then set the hook hard and you'll get a hook up."


Great smallmouth fishing is just one of the things you'll get on a trip down the John Day River with guide Steve Fleming. He serves a noontime meal right there on the river that will have your taste buds doing a toe dance all the way home.


I could tell you a bunch of other reasons why you'll enjoy making a trip with Steve. Those smallmouth bass on the John Day aren't all he has going. He also has access to a dandy little private largemouth lake in that same isolated area. I've taken fish of 8-pounds there myself. Odds are, he'll show it to you if you're interested.

And then there's the delicious lunch Steve serves right there on the river come noontime. The food he serves has been cooking all morning in the Dutch Oven he fires up in the boat before you start drifting downstream. You'll find the chow Steve provides is just as delicious as those aromas you've been sniffing all morning have indicated it might be.

Again — if I was heading into the Pacific Northwest tomorrow, I'd make sure I had Steve Fleming and his Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil on my "Must See" schedule. You're missing one heck of an enjoyable experience if you don't do the same.


Guide Steve Fleming also offers his clients access to a private bass lake. Here I display one of the beauties I caught there myself.
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