For the average person, the salmonfly must be a nightmare. Massive, winged and hairy, with what looks like a pair of stingers coming out the back (don’t worry, they’re not) the salmonfly packs everything people find revolting about roaches, flies, and wasps. For fly fishermen, though, they’re a gift. These meaty bugs provide a filling meal for salmon and trout. Often they’re the best non-fish energy source in a river system, and much easier to catch. The salmonfly draws anglers from across the country for the hatch in Montana, Washington and Idaho, for some of the most decadent dry fly fishing to be had anywhere. It’s become an institution.
And for Elke Littleleaf Kirk, it’s become a way of life.
The fishing looks excellent this year,” said Elke, when we got a chance to speak last week. It’s just in advance of the fall steelhead run and the salmonfly season, so Elke is busy. Not just with fishing; the bulk of his day was taken up testing gear and taking video for his website. “They’re really coming up. Already we’ve seen three hundred thousand come over the dam. We haven’t even seen the big ones yet. They start coming about a month from now.”
Elke and his wife Alysia are the owners and operators of Littleleaf Guides, operating on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, which borders dozens of miles of the Deschutes River. Elke has lived there almost his whole life, fishing the reservation side of the river. “I pretty much know every single rock, know where all the fish holes are, I know where all the animals live. I’ve learned some neat tricks, like seeing where the otters are feeding and fishing there,” said Elke. Littleleaf has become famous for guiding trips during the peak salmonfly season. In fact, you may already know the Kirks and Littleleaf Guides, especially if you’re a fan of Curtis Fleming’s Fly Rod Chronicles.
“He [Curtis] filmed in May of 2014. The first seven days we had him on the river going all over, and then the last three days we had him out of the water. When he came down, he liked it so much that he wanted to invite his wife and his two daughters. They ended up filming two episodes: the regular episode, and then a special with his family, which he’d never done before,” said Elke.
Any fly fisherman would want to get on Curtis’ show—it’s the top of the heap as far as fly fishing media goes, equivalent to landing a spot on Colbert or Jimmy Fallon. But Elke also hoped the exposure would help attract people to the reservation’s resort. Dwindling interest from vacationers had driven unemployment on the reservation to 70 percent.
“I actually e-mailed him and let him know what I thought he could do for us. The resort here is one of the biggest employers in Warm Springs, but we’ve seen fewer visitors the last few years, and it’s been tough. Having Curtis come out would help us, but we also hoped bringing more people to the reservation would help get more business going for the resort.”
And that’s been Elke in a nutshell, ever since he started guiding. He’s a humanitarian and environmentalist, mindful to help others as word spreads about Littleleaf and the fishing on the reservation. He lends time and money to local conservation and river cleanup efforts, and works works with environmental advocacy groups. And as the father of a child with disabilities, he’s worked to ensure that his services are accessible to fishermen with disabilities. Last May, those efforts allowed a terminally ill man to fish the salmonfly hatch.
“We had a gentleman in hospice care who had seen us on Fly Rod Chronicles. He told his wife, ‘See if you can get me out there, I want to fish the Salmon Fly Hatch.’ It worked out perfect. He and his wife came out, with permission from his doctors. He wasn’t very mobile so we needed to fish from a boat. It was actually my first time ever fishing from a boat, but I got a pretty good idea of where to go and what to do from watching videos. Man, he slayed ’em.”
Learning the Ropes
For all that accomplishment, Elke’s career as a fly fisherman is still young. He’s been guiding for only five years, and it was only 12 years ago that he first picked up a fly rod.
“I’ve been doing that [fly fishing] for 12 years, but I’ve been catching fish on the Deschutes for 35 years. I started fly fishing when I saw some videos on TV. It looked challenging, and I’ve always been the type that likes to learn by doing. So I started teaching myself how to fly fish. I went to rivers, watched people, started buying a whole bunch of books and used gear,” said Elke.
Elke has learned a lot since then. He’s mastered the bowcast, an advanced technique most often used to illustrate the flexibility of fly rods. Elke uses it to shoot line straight into small pockets under crowded brush. He’s also gotten a chance to study with at least one master he has a personal connection with: Jim Teeny, whose book was one of the first Elke picked up when he started learning to fly fish. Teeny and Elke have been friends for three years, ever since Teeny came out to fish the Deschutes with Littleleaf. But being mostly self taught, Elke has developed some unorthodox techniques. “Yeah, I have my own styles, like the way I cast. You wouldn’t be able to use these techniques on smaller streams and creeks than the Deschutes. That’s an advantage of having 35 miles on this river. You learn the system,” said Elke.
He’s also developed his own flies. “I’ve just made my 177th pattern on my own. The company I was buying flies from was having business problems, which messed us up at the beginning of the season. So I started looking on YouTube and learning the basics. Now I can usually crank out a new design in about 15 minutes,” said Elke. Some of his improvements on conventional flies include a Chubby Chernobyl that stays afloat longer, with a movement steelhead find more enticing. “They like my rubber legs,” he said. “I’ll make them stick up and over instead of floating straight across. So that gives it like a wiggly sensation.”
Undoubtedly his exclusive fishing access has been a factor in Elke’s success. Besides Littleleaf, only a few other native fishermen work that side of the river. With so little pressure, the reservation has nurtured a world class fishery, with enough water to keep an angler occupied for a lifetime. Realizing that was a major factor influencing Elke to start his guide service in the first place. “I moved from Portland back to Warm Springs to work at the mill,” said Elke. “Whenever I had the chance I’d go across the river and see all the fly fishermen, and one day it just popped in my head. We’ve got this great natural resource, 39 miles of water all to ourselves. I decided right then and there that I wanted to do something with it.”
But with his fortunes now tied to the river, Elke is also sensitive to the threats it faces. And lately, those threats come predominantly from Nestlé. The company wants to open a bottling plant nearby that would devastate the ecosystem. Scientists working with the reservation estimate that the bottling plant would cut steelhead runs by 70 percent. Elke recently participated in a demonstration against the plant at the state capitol. “We just finished up a rally in Salem, Oregon. We took a little over 320,000 signatures and gave them to governor Kit Brown.”
The threat of the Nestle bottling plant is serious. Next week we’ll hear from Elke more extensively about his environmental advocacy, especially in the latest battle against Nestlé. For now, Elke is trying to gear up for what looks like an excellent salmonfly season. To learn more, check out Elke’s website here, or look him up on Facebook.
Ed. Note: the article originally stated the new bottling plant would be on the Deschutes River. The plant will be downstream on the Columbia River, at Cascade Locks.