Anatomy of a Steelheader — Mia Sheppard

With steelhead season in full swing, nailing down a guide for an interview isn’t exactly an easy task. Just like any other angler who’s been bit by steelhead, Simms Ambassador, Mia Sheppard has been spending as much time on the water as possible when not working for TRCP to conserve public lands, however, we did manage to pin her down for a short Q&A. Here, Mia goes in depth about her obsessive love for steelhead, preferred forecasts, her home waters and the G Series she relies on season after season.

Simms: There’s something about steelhead that makes anglers absolutely obsess over them. In your mind, what is that “something”?
Mia: Steelhead are really hard to catch, a test to ones true ability. You have to pay your dues in the form of hours on the water and patience. People go nuts wondering why they can’t hook one, and obsess about it, wondering, is it the time of day, the fly, the run, the cast? Steelhead are a beautiful species that travel thousands of miles to make their journey back home. Like a tarpon is too the ocean, a steelhead is to the river. Their nomadic, powerful, and have a way of connecting people with something that is greater than we are.

Simms: What is you is your ideal forecast for steelhead?
Mia: The drearier the weather, the better for winter steelhead. Summer steelhead are different and tolerant sunny days but a change in weather, a drop in the barometric pressure and a little rain gets me stoked!

Simms: Is there anything significant about cold days, rainy days, snowy days that contributes to a good day of steelheading?
Mia: Rainy days are great days. In my mind, a bit of rain is perfect, it really seems to get the fishing moving. For example, last February we had a month of no rain, the fishing turned off for weeks. Finally, we woke to grey skies and a light rain. It turned out to be an epic morning! My perfect forecast would be a little rainy, 50 degrees and a bit of sun mid-day. 

Simms: What’s your gear kit look like for summer, fall and winter steelheading?
Mia: I wear the Women’s G3 Guide™ Wader in the summer with the G3 Guide™ Boots. In the fall and winter, I tend to go with G3 Guide™ Bootfoot Waders. My favorite base layer is the Montana Wool Mid Top and Montana Wool Mid Bottom and top and I can’t live without the Woman’s Fall Run Jacket and Women’s Guide Jacket.

Simms: When did you start pursuing steelhead?
Mia: My first steelhead experience was a road trip with Marty [Mia’s husband] through British Columbia back in 2001. I didn’t touch a fish that trip, but got to see Marty land a couple beauty’s. I started guiding in 2003 for smallmouth bass when we bought Little Creek Outfitters. I didn’t start guiding steelhead until 2008. To be a good steelhead guide, you can’t be attached to catching a steelhead. When I released the emotional attachment of needing to catch a fish, was when I became a steelhead guide.

Simms: So you didn’t touch one on your road trip. Tell us about the first time you connected.
Mia: It was fall on the John Day River, in Eastern Oregon. I’d been trying for about a year to catch one on the swing. Just like a basketball player that keeps missing the shot, eventually you’ve got to get one or you get discouraged. Marty suggested we put on a sink tip and a black-and-blue leech. His rod broke earlier that day so we were sharing a rod, taking turns casting. He would make three casts and hook a fish and I would make three casts. Finally, on one of the casts, my line went tight, and the rod tip throbbed. I thought I was stuck on the bottom, Marty did too. I handed him the rod and the reel started spinning , he quickly handed it back and a couple seconds later the rod went limp. Not sure what happened, that experience keeps me wondering to this day. I also learned an important lesson — always have a spare rod — you never want to be in a position where you’re sharing a rod with significant other. 

Simms: In your own words, what is the anatomy of a steelheader? What is this person like, are there similar personality traits amongst them?
Mia: A steelhead junkie is someone that goes to bed thinking about steelhead, dreams about and wakes up thinking about the next river, the next cast and the grab. The person stops at nothing to spend as many waking hours on the water as possible. They’ll call in sick, relocate to steelhead country and spend their last dollar on a double handed rod and fly tying material. The obsession grows so deep they fall into deep depression when not steelheading and light up like a child, hand’s shaking, and heart racing when they release one.

Simms: Tell us about the steelhead water you fish in Oregon? Does each piece differ, if so, how? What’s your favorite river and why?
Mia: I fish desert rivers for summer steelhead and glacier rivers for winter steelhead. There’s a drastic difference in the geology and hydrology and I like the changing conditions of both. It’s tough to name just one river I like the most. I adore all rivers, each one is unique and special but I prefer the wide open spaces of a desert river with the smell of sage brush and scanning the horizon for mule deer.

Simms: Do you agree, when it comes to steelhead, you either get it or you don’t?Mia: Steelhead are the fish of a 1,000 casts. It isn’t just about the catching; it’s the process and the connection. There’s a dogma among true steelheaders and you do either “get it or you don’t”.

Simms: What is your personal connection to steelhead?
Mia: I love the places steelhead take me and the people I meet. For me — swinging flies is a soulful approach, like standing on a mountain top covered in snow, ready to drop in and get the first tracks. This is my backcountry. The constant movement of stepping down river and feeling the water around my ankles and knees, it’s an opportunity to become familiar with each rock under my feet and learn what runs fish at what water levels. There’s the joy of looking around, seeing eagles fly over head, watching the red wing black birds eat berries, the redtail hawks swoop in on their catch and mule deer play. The dance of spey casting with the thrill of the grab and each grab is unique and catches me by surprise. This is what I love, it connects me to the outdoors.

When you hook your first steelhead, you’re hooked for life. The grab, backing getting peeled from your reel, shaking knees, you lose control and are at the mercy of the fish. 

  • steelheadjeff

    Very cool… “The obsession grows so deep they fall into deep depression when not steelheading and light up like a child, hand’s shaking, and heart racing when they release one.” She captures the addiction, and subsequent “steelhead fever” beautifully!

  • Greg Jowyk

    Love steelhead fishing. I remember my first as well, or my first miss I should say. I went on to have a good day though, netting and releasing three.

  • Kimberly Carpenter

    I agree with steelheadjeff 100 % and Mia! Steelies are a challenge to catch! They are elusive, but obtainable SOMETIMES!
    Seriously for me there is NOTHING ELSE LIKE LANDING a Steelhead !!!!!
    The tug gets my heart rate up, the fight and the jumps are AMAZING! To hold one in your hand in the water INCREDIBLE To release it under water and capture it on vid of pic is PRICELESS!!!,
    My arms and legs shake, and I am in awe of what just happened
    I fished for Steelhead for over a year closer to 2 yrs, before I hooked into one and landed it’ My body trembled for I don’t know how long, the adrenaline rush was so amazing, that I can not even describe it! I hit the river every chance I get, there are a lot of zero fish days, but when I do get one it is the most INCREDIBLE feeling that I can’t describe … I truly can not imagine my life, without Salmon and Steelhead Fishing….


  • Brian Kozminski

    There is nothing quite like having the surge of electricity like a fresh hot steelhead on the end of your fly line~>> Absolutely love it!!
    Tight Lines,