Steelhead quest

A Central Oregon girl’s rite of passage

Gary Lewis /

Traditions. In our family, we fish on the day of the wedding, at least as long as I’m alive. And I mean the groom and assorted hangers-on. No one tells the bride what to do. Trust me.

Then, not too many years after the wedding, there are children. And there must be traditions for the offspring. We have rites of passage: deer hunting and steelhead. About the time our oldest, Tiffany, passed hunter education, we set a goal for her and each of the girls. They must tag a deer and catch a steelhead before they are old enough to leave the house.

Tiffany took her first buck at 14, a Texas whitetail. It was her third season and she earned it. At 16, she caught her first steelhead on her first try, on the Snake River.

Jennifer shot a bear at the age of 12, but it wasn’t until she was 14 that she bagged her first blacktail. At 16, she caught a steelhead on her first try on one of the rainiest days ever on the Clackamas River.

Their mother, Merrilee, has caught her steelhead and tagged her mule deer. They were rites of passage for her as well.

Of the girls, 17-year-old Mikayla might be the most enthusiastic hunter; she has an elk and several blacktail deer to her credit. The steelhead has been difficult. As it should be.

She tried her hand with a spinner on the North Umpqua and with the late Fish-On Phil on the McKenzie. She has fished in Washington state, Alaska and Oregon and caught salmon, sturgeon, trout and bass, but not a steelhead.

They call it the fish of a thousand casts. For me, it took two years of frustration and misery from the day I set out to catch my first.

Last week we took Mikayla’s quest to the Warm Springs Reservation and fished with Littleleaf Guide Service, Elke Littleleaf Kirk and his wife, Alysia Aguilar Littleleaf. This is some of the best steelhead water in the state and can only be fished with a native guide. I had fished that side of the Des-chutes River with my friend, Al Bagley, and it was good to be on the water again.

At the first run, Mikayla and Elke waded out while Alysia and I sat on a log and watched. Elke stood at Mikayla’s side while she drifted a fly through a seam.

The river was encased in fog — ice crystals clung to the willows and sage and formed in the tiptop of the fly rod. Elke and Mikayla waded back to shore. Mikayla took off her left boot and poured the river out of it. Nothing like 40-degree water to wake you up in the morning.

Elke and Alysia built a fire while I went through the run with a rabbit hair leech. At the end of a swing, a steelhead tugged, I let 15 inches of line go then lifted the rod. Nothing.

Back at the fire, Mikayla had her bare foot on a hot rock. Steam rose off her pant leg.

“It turns out that the sensations of freezing and burning are pretty much the same thing,” she said. “Sometimes I thought my foot was on fire, but then I touched it and it felt cold.”

Alysia cooked Mikayla’s merino wool sock on a stick.

A rocky road took us over a rise and afforded a view of the Mutton Mountains and Whitehorse Rapids. Down at the river, I ran a nymph and hooked a rainbow that threw the steel on its first jump.

A bald eagle hunted in the river canyon upstream. “Good medicine,” Alysia whispered.

It was. This tradition of ours started as my own conceit. I remember when I shivered beside steelhead rivers with my socks soaked in the near-freezing water in my boots. I remember going to sleep at night to dream about the next day on the river, obsessed. I came to love the sound of the water, the timelessness of it, the little beauties, the rhythms.

Mikayla, when Alysia and Elke looked away, hooked a fish. I saw the pulse of it in the rod and I knew. She kept her mouth shut and Elke saw the fish when it swirled to the surface. By the time I got to them, Mikayla had a nice Deschutes River rainbow at hand, a fish that unlike its cousin, the steelhead, had not gone to the ocean. A gorgeous trout, about 15 inches long, we admired it then watched it kick away.

This girl will get her steelhead. It’s not going to come easy; she will suffer for it. In the process, she will see some of the Northwest’s best rivers and come to love them. That’s good medicine.

— Gary Lewis is the host of “Adventure Journal TV” and author of “John Nosler Going Ballistic,” “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at www.garylewisoutdoors.com