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

Search This Blog

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.

May 30, 2014

The Smallmouth of Steelhead Country, Part 1

by Stan Fagerstrom

It's something even experienced bass men who should know better find it difficult to believe.

And just what is the "it" I'm talking about. It's just because a lure that always seems to get the best results on your home lake may not be all that great someplace else. If you don't realize this already, you dang well better wise up because you eventually will.

The beautiful John Day River runs through the quiet country of central Oregon before it dumps into the Columbia River. The river supports the migratory fishes like steelhead and salmon but it's also loaded with smallmouth bass. Nobody knows this great Oregon stream better than Steve Fleming, the operator of Mah-Hah Oufitters at Fossil, Oregon.

I've been around for awhile. I can remember two or three times when one or another of the country's top lure makers has suddenly quit making a lure that was one of my very best baits. I thought they had lost their marbles.

Those "loose" marbles were mine. One of my good friends at the Heddon Tackle Company brought this to my attention decades ago when the company announced they would no longer be marketing a beautiful old lure called the "Heddon Basser."

"What in hell are you guys doing?" I asked my friend. "That Basser is one of the best lures you've got. When conditions are right I catch more fish on that thing than anything else in my tackle box."
"Stan," my friend responded, "there a few others like you here and there who catch fish on it but that Basser you're talking about just isn't a good seller for us. Lures that sell are what lets us stay in business. We just can't continue to carry the ones that don't in our inventory. It's really quite simple---if they don't sell they don't stay."

Book a trip with guide Steve Fleming and he'll take you to isolated stretches of the John Day above Fossil. You'll drift downstream and fish for smallmouth as you go. Here Steve launches his drift boat at the start of a trip.

I didn't like that response, but even a bullheaded old Scandinavian like yours truly had to admit it made sense. It has happened to me a couple more times since that Heddon Basser experience.

Did this mean I had to change tactics? No way! As soon as I learned that the lure was no longer going to be available I made darn sure I got a supply of them that would last me down through the years. I'll do the same thing again tomorrow if a lure I like and am catching fish on is about to disappear from the market.

All this came to mind recently when I had opportunity to visit with one of the most experienced outfitters and fishing guides in the western United States.

The man I'm talking about is Steve Fleming, the veteran operator of Mah-Hah Outfitters on Oregon's famed John Day River. Steve headquarters in Fossil, Oregon. As you'd expect, Steve guides for the migratory fishes for which the Pacific Northwest is famous. But his superb guiding efforts don't end there.

The John Day River got a plant of 80 young smallmouth for the first time back in 1971. Guide Steve Fleming shows us here how well that plant made 43 years ago has turned out. He took the beauty he displays here in mid-March of this year.

What you might not realize is that the John Day also carries an abundance of smallmouth bass. An Oregon State Department of Fish & Game biologist named Errol Claire planted 80 smallmouth bass in the John Day River in 1971.

To merely say those young smallmouth liked their new home doesn't get the job done. They flat out loved it! "The plant Errol made was the only stocking of smallmouth ever made on the John Day," Steve Fleming says. "Today you'll find the river holds about 1,000 smallmouths per mile of water. Some of these fish exceed 5-pounds in weight."

Fleming has been running his Mah-Hah Outfitters operation on the John Day now for 25 years. During that time he's guided anglers from all over the country at one time or another. One of them happens to be the same retired fish biologist who made that original plant of smallmouth in the John Day.

"One of the advantages," Fleming says, "of getting to fish with lots of different folks is that they introduce you to new lures and techniques. This happened when I started taking Errol Claire smallmouth fishing on the John Day."

That's not surprising because besides being technically qualified as you'd expect an experienced fish biologist to be, Errol is also a cracking good angler. Today Steve will tell you his retired biologist friend turned him onto the lure that now is his number one producer in the cold water of early season fishing.

Here's another example of the excellent smallmouth fishing to be had on Oregon's John Day River.

He'll also tell you that this valued friend introduced him to the tackle and technique he now employs to nail some beautiful big John Day smallmouth when the river is up and discolored. One of these set ups has produced John Day smallmouth that have won top honors in the "Catch & Release Contest" conducted by In-Fisherman magazine in the nine Western States.

But right here's where my friend Steve Fleming ran into that same problem I mentioned in the beginning. That problem is no longer being able to continue to get the exact lure he'd been clobbering the fish with because it's no longer being produced.

Don't miss my next column. I'll reveal what that lure is and how Steve Fleming uses it to produce even when conditions are less than ideal. It's bound to give you ideas you can use in your own fishing.

You'll find that column right here beginning in July.

-To Be Continued-

You are not logged in: Log inRegister
Affiliated Sites:

© 2007 Noreast Media, LLC.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Print this page
Contact us | Boat Reviews
Get help using | Boat DIY

All Coast Media Network 2 Cool Fishing All Coast