Fly fishing the Deschutes

The sky was just beginning to lighten as my wife Christine and I crossed the high desert from Bend, Oregon on our way to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and a rendezvous with our guide Elke Kirk (Littleleaf) and his wife Alysia. The stark buttes and mountains in the distance were silhouetted against a pink horizon, massive and featureless except for the relief of their jagged contours. To the west ,the snow-capped volcano Mount Jefferson framed the surreal landscape. 

I had been investigating the fishing opportunities in advance of our trip to Oregon when I first learned about Elke (pronounced Elk), a Native American guide on the Deschutes, a famous steelhead river that’s a major tributary of the Columbia River. Elke and other Native guides on the reservation have access to 39 miles of the river that’s off limits to other anglers. While the river is best known for its steelhead runs it’s also home to rainbow trout, including a native species known as redsides. These trout are famed for their fighting ability born of the swift currents they spend their lives in.

We met Elke and Alysia in Warm Springs and after transferring equipment to their drift boat we donned our waders and jumped in their truck for the drive to the launch area on the Deschutes. On the way we stopped at a spring that Elke claimed was tested as the second cleanest drinking source in the country. A quick taste confirmed the purity of the clear cold liquid. A few miles down a rough dirt road and we were at the launch spot, hardly more than a clearing in the stream side vegetation. While they were getting the boat launched and prepared I waded the edges of the river with a dry fly and and got several takes that I wasn’t able to connect with.

In conversations prior to the trip I had learned that anglers are not able to fish out of the boat on the Deschutes. When I queried Elke he related that they had almost lost the native population of trout due to anglers dragging them in the swift current while drifting.

Not fishing from the boat meant we passed by many promising shorelines and pockets, instead stopping and wading some of the river’s most productive stretches. The unanticipated advantage was that we were better able to enjoy the awesome scenery on what turned out to be a spectacular day. Instead of hitting one bank and then another, constantly eyeing the river, I was able to sit back and appreciate the buttes, canyons and incredible geological formations that line the river.

On the first stop, Elke set up my seven weight Hardy fly rod with a steelhead fly and positioned me on a gravel bar at the confluence of the Warm Springs and Deschutes River. On my fourth cast, I hooked up to a fish that he thought was a steelhead due to the strong runs it made into my backing. After working the fish from the current into a seam of slower water, Elke was able to bring it to the net. As it turned out it was a native Redsides rainbow that measured close to 20”. According to Elke the fish was a trophy, as the fish average from 13-16 inches.

The balance of the day I fished some of the most beautiful water and scenery I have ever encountered. The sky was blue, the sun warm and both Christine and I reveled in the beauty that surrounded us. As fly fishers know some of the best days, weather wise, can be some of the most challenging and this day was a case study.

While I was able to get some action on smaller trout on dry flies, the Redsides and steelhead proved elusive the rest of the day. That in no way dampened our enthusiasm or enjoyment of the day that ended with an incredible drive over native lands back to “civilization.” The day was an excellent introduction to the Deschutes and a delightful adventure with a native guide. Both Elke and Alysia shared stories of the river, the land and the legends that abound in this wild and remote part of Oregon. This float is recommended for fishers and non-fishers alike as the scenery is spectacular and the river features some exhilarating rapids. Reach Elke at his website or at 541-615-0402.