Fishing with Elke on the Deschutes by Terry J Wiest
The Deschutes has to be one of the rivers that every steelheader must try and fish.
The numbers may not always be huge, but the scenery, the water, and the beauty of the fish make it a worthwhile adventure. The area of the Deschutes I was able to fish was on the Warm Springs Reservation located in North Central Oregon.
This area requires a tribal guide, and we were able to hook up with the most well-known of those, Elke Littleleaf who along with his wife Alysia run LittleLeaf Guide Service.
We were able to fish this iconic river in October.
Not typically a hot steelhead month but for those caught in-between the summer-run and winter-run fish, this is a great alternative if you’re seeking steelhead. While some call this a “fall” run, they are actually summer-runs that will continue to migrate upstream all the way through January. There are also “B” run fish that push upwards of 20 pounds that are heading to the Clearwater which also populate the river at this time.
As we arrived at the Reservation, wild horses roaming the open space greeted us.
The sunrise cast an ominous red glow on the canyon walls as we drove down to our meeting place. Both Elke and Alysia were geared up and ready to go. Elke presented us each with a “Thunder Egg” gathered from the reservation as a gesture of peace. One of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received, it now sits cut in half on my desk as a reminder of the incredible trip we’re about to embark on.
Since we are so remote, Littleleaf uses a tag team system as while Elke guides us down the river in the well-equipped Pavati custom drift boat, Alysia follows along the river in her rig to make sure all is well.
The biggest advantage to fishing on the reservation is the lack of other anglers. We had the whole “side” to ourselves. Now let me explain the “side” thing. The river is basically split in half, down the middle as far as fishing boundaries. While the “other” side is open to all anglers, from the middle of the river to the bank of the reservation is only open to tribal guides and their clients.
So while the “open” side was busy with numerous boats and anglers, we had the luxury of fishing the entire run with all untouched water, a very rare occurrence that pays dividends. Fishing from a boat is prohibited. Although being on tribal water we could have fished from the boat, Elke is very strict about his clients following the rules set forth by the Oregon Department of Fisheries. That means pinched barbs too!
Elke is primarily a fly fisherman, as are most of his clients. My intent was to start off with float and jig, then move into fly fishing after I hooked a fish. My fishing buddy Ron Camp just brought along his Spey rod and was determined to get one of these famous Deschutes steelhead on the fly.
The river was much larger than I expected.
Man there’s a lot of water that flows through, but the banks looked to me like incredible fishing water.
Arriving at the put in, Elke said to gear up as we’d be getting to fishing right away. Being prepared is one of my must do’s, so my jig rod was raring to go.
“Go hit that spot above us here while we get everything ready.” Elke told me.
Ha, don’t have to tell me twice. I walked maybe 50 feet up the river and found a great spot that looked fishy. The water was a nice slow walking speed along the bank and I could see some huge boulders beneath the surface. So I cast upstream with my bobber and jig and let it flow through the slot. Nothing. As I didn’t hit the bottom I adjusted the length of my leader by a foot and cast again. Nothing. Again I adjusted my leader by another foot seeking bottom. Third cast… WHAM!
My line screamed and the fish flew out of the water and landed on its side creating a huge splash.
“What the Hell” said Elke as he looked up and saw me fighting the fish, “You didn’t even say anything.”
“Fish On,” I yelled out and started to laugh.
Now these fish aren’t generally on the large side, so the net on hand was a smaller net worthy of some large trout. As Elke slipped the net underneath the fish I was wondering how in the heck it was going to fit. The fish surged straight into the net and broke through.
We all began to laugh as now the fish was screaming out line which was now going through the net. Alysia went back to the boat to get a larger net, and before long the fish was exhausted and we were able to bring the beauty to hand.
The fish measured 32 inches which was the largest to that point of the fall-run fish that Elke and Alysia’s clients have landed. It was also a hatchery fish so it had a date with the BBQ the next day.
Now that’s a heck of a start to any fishing day!
We’re all pumped now and so off we go down the river to the first hole. For fly fishing this was magnificent. A perfect hole for swinging a fly. Elke had his own tied flies on hand, while Ron and myself used some tied by our friend Jeff Layton who runs Grabflies.com. An absolutely gorgeous day, one could not help but appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. So peaceful you just wanted to suck in all the magnificent sights and sounds of this glorious land.
We hit the area hard to no avail. But, we’re just getting started and there’s much more river and daylight left.
In-between holes Elke entertained us with stories from growing up, his people, the land, and even Big Foot. All were fascinating but I was really intrigued by how you could see the excitement in Elke’s eyes as the tales of his Big Foot encounters came to life. Not everyone of course believes in the hairy beast, but listening to Elke will put goosebumps on your neck.
Downstream we could see the rig.
Alysia was already there waiting for us. We all got out of the boat and split up.
I headed way upstream while Ron and Elke stayed below to hit some nice riffles. The stretch I was fishing had my heart pumping. I couldn’t have asked for more perfect water. I fished the run hard with the anticipation of a strike on every cast. I just knew my rod was going to double over. But it didn’t. Thinking I had pounded this water hard enough I walked downstream to meet the others. They too had the same luck.
The next section was a much smaller run and Ron was on it. He swung his fly out and bam! Fish on. Except it wouldn’t be a steelhead, but rather a Deschutes special… a red-side trout. What a gorgeous fish even if it was not what we were after. Since Elke could see how much we both appreciated this fish’s beauty, he said we must come back in mid-May/June during the salmon fly hatch to fish for the red-sides specifically. You can bet we will be there!
The next hole we’d be met again by Alysia who had lunch waiting. Nothing like enjoying a nice meal riverside with good friends and incredible beauty all around us.
Not much for eating while I’m fishing, I just grabbed a super quick bite and was off. I really liked what I saw coming downstream so I grabbed my jig road and walked up about a half-mile to fish the bank. Now dang if this wasn’t about the most impressive looking jig water I’ve seen outside of Forks, WA. I was using the same color jig as I hooked the first fish with so I was beaming with confidence. Again, to no avail.
Fishing had been tough on the Deschutes this year (2017) with a very low return, but I was still determined to catch another, and if I didn’t, I was going to have a damn good time trying.
As we meandered down the river, Elke would point out different things along the banks that most would never notice, like the petroglyphs alongside a rock that was blended in with the surroundings.
At day’s end, we managed the one steelhead, a couple of rainbow trout and a few red-sides. An incredible day that unfortunately had to come to an end.
As we jumped out of the boat Elke told us we might as well cast a few times downstream while him and Alysia loaded the boat and gear up.
Ron decided to go upstream so I head downstream toting my float and jig rod again. The brush was tough to get to the bank, but I managed to find a nice little spot where the deer had been bedded down.
First cast I snagged up and broke off my jig that had produced earlier. I tied on a new jig and cast out again. After two or three casts my jig disappeared and I set the hook. I should say I tried to set the hook as nothing was attached. Hmmm… a fish? Bottom? Well, let’s give it another shot. I sent the jig through the exact same drift.
As the float neared the same spot I was anticipating a bobber down… and it did! As I set the hook I also thought it had to be a snag since it was the same spot, right… wrong. Fish running and screaming out line and I’m hooked up.
This time my voice would not carry upstream so I decided to whistle. As Elke walked down to see if I was in trouble he just had this big ol’ grin on his face.
“I told you that hole has produced.” said Elke.
A smaller fish and adipose fin intact, this fish was revived and let go. What an awesome fish.
What an awesome day.
For those of you contemplating fishing the Deschutes, I highly recommend you do.
The boat trip alone is worth it, the fish are a bonus.
- written by Terry J Weist