High Country Rainbows
September 30, 2010
Plan on spending at least a few days this summer pursuing the rainbow trout in these Black Hills lakes. You'll be glad that you did! (July 2006)
At the end of a long and hot day, I'd had enough of the sun-baked sidewalks and the gnarly traffic with the unpleasant odor of internal combustion engines wafting through the air.
High up somewhere deeper into the mountainous Black Hills lies paradise for would-be trout fishermen. So I eagerly headed up as the sun blazed down. By the time I arrived in what could be called the high country of the Black Hills, everything had changed: The temperature was lower, and quite wonderful; cement sidewalks were many, many miles away. And stretching out in front of me were the cold, blue waters of a lake filled with rainbow trout.
The fly-fishing vest draping down over my shoulders felt like an old friend. And if an angler uses a fly rod long enough, it's just like the baseball mitt that he used as a kid -- it starts feeling as if it were just another limb.
At first, just for the fun of it, I did some false-casting back and forth, the line flying out over the water; finally I let it settle down lightly on the water surface and began stripping it in. On the very end of the tippet was a Hare's Ear nymph, one of the many flies that will catch trout here.
Down below swam one of the most widely coveted fish species in the world: rainbow trout. The most common trout in Black Hills lakes, they don't attain huge sizes for the most part, but they're big enough to entertain just about any angler who's feeling that fishing urge.
And so it was with me as I waded out into the upper end of Deerfield Lake, one of the larger lakes in the Black Hills, and also one of the highest. The water is always cold, and when you're out in it, even in the middle of the summer, you can't last long without insulated waders.
For the fisherman ready for a change of pace from the hot summer lowlands, it's like having Nature's own air conditioning wrapped around your torso. The trout like it, too: The cold depths are well suited to the species that live there.
The little nymph slowly ascended and moved along in the water, and soon was in the jaws of a rather feisty rainbow trout. The line went tight, and immediately the fish moved into action. Rainbows usually make a panicked, darting swim first, and this one behaved true to form. And then it jumped completely out of the water, which is similarly characteristic of rainbow trout.
When the fish finally came to hand, I saw that it exhibited the beautiful reddish-purple color that rainbow trout are known for. Here in the Black Hills, they take on especially bright coloration when they're exposed to lots of sun in clear water, a combination that brings out the brilliant hues.
I unhooked the fish and let it go.
Fishermen go after the trout in these Black Hills lakes all summer. Tackle ranges from simple spincasting rigs with a worm or piece of corn for bait to the best fly-fishing gear available. All of them catch trout.
These mountains offer a lot of action. You won't catch the huge fish that can be found in a few trophy lakes in the heart of the West, but the numbers of trout are solid enough to provide decent fishing most of the time. You'll stay busy catching and releasing fish.
The food supply for the fish is reliably generous, for the most part, which allows them to grow fairly quickly. That's important here, because it ultimately produces a higher quality of fish.
The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks stocks all the rainbow trout in Black Hills lakes -- usually hatchery-sized 8- or 10-inchers -- and quite a few of those are caught fairly soon after stocking in a put-and-take fishery oriented to the needs of the tourist industry. But some survive longer, and when they're allowed to mature through at least one winter, they turn into fish with an entirely different look and attitude; in fact, they even seem to get smarter. In other words, they're almost indistinguishable from a wild rainbow trout once they've been in the wild for several months or years. That's very important for avid flyfishermen, because savvy trout mean a fishery of much higher quality.
Two types of waters favor trout longevity. The bigger lakes such as Deerfield, Pactola, Stockade and, perhaps, Sheridan Lake are large enough to enable some rainbows to elude anglers and, in many cases, to age enough to take on the wild look and flair.
In smaller lakes hit hard by anglers, it's more difficult, so to find the older fish, you have to hit some out-of-the-way places that aren't pressured as heavily. Part of the fun lies in finding your own spots by trying out different lakes -- and it's usually the ones farthest from Rapid City that make for the most rewarding "wild" trout action.
Rapid City angler Scott Zieske, who's been going after these Black Hills fish for most of his life, likes to get away from other fishing competition as much as possible. "During summer, in my view, you need to get out of the immediate Rapid City area and fish the lakes with the least fishing pressure on them," he said.
One of the most avid flyfishermen in the area, Zieske has fished all over the West. Unfortunately, he's watched trout fishing in the Black Hills lakes decline over the past decade owing to water loss and the illegal planting of nonnative fish species. But the Black Hills lakes still attract anglers.
For summer fishing, he recommends the morning or evening hours, when air temperatures moderate a bit and the fish are most active. You'll also see more insects at those times of day, and since more hatches happen then, the rainbows also tend to be more active, and more easily caught. Often enough, you can get an idea of how much feeding activity is going on just by watching the water: Trout frequently dimple the surface as they pick off nymphs.
"In July, evening and morning will be better," offered Zieske. "I definitely stay away from the middle of the day. Fish either early in the morning or toward sundown."
Fly-fishing is ideally suited for this type of angling -- and it's fun
"I use mostly nymphs," said Zieske. "There aren't a whole lot of areas where you can catch fish on the surface in lakes. It's pretty much fishing with sinking lines or sink-tip lines."
All kinds of nymph patterns will work. Most fishermen use the more subtle ones, which closely resemble their wild food.
"The Wooly Bugger is a staple," Zieske explained. "You can fish with Backswimmers, Water Boatmen. Some of the ponds and lakes have good Callibaetis, which is a mayfly nymph."
These mayfly-nymph and dry-fly patterns have long been among the most effective for catching Black Hills trout. Even some of the flies that don't directly imitate this or that insect will get results, because the trout see them as a close enough match to eat. Black Hills Wonderbug wet flies are a good example -- that old pattern still works on our lakes.
Some of the smaller flies can also prove quite serviceable. Mosquitoes, of course, are common all over the Black Hills. Even smaller in size are midges -- tiny, plentiful, and kind of a fishing secret in the Black Hills. Millions of these small insects will be found in ponds and lakes, and not many fishermen use midge patterns to catch trout.
"Midges are good in some of the colder ponds in the Hills," noted Zieske. "They're all over the place. It's just that some of the colder ponds have less variety of hatches, but the midges are all over the Hills. That is kind of a year-round deal. You will find midges hatching almost any time you have open water."
Intimidatingly minuscule in the view of some anglers, midge patterns are often tied on size 20 or even smaller hooks -- so small that it can be a challenge just to get the tippet through the eye of the hook. If you tie your own flies, the real key to midge patterns is to keep them very sparse. One fisherman here refers to them as "thread flies" because the only thing on the hook is one wrapping of thread.
The human notion is that the bigger and juicier an offering looks, the more enticing it will be to fish, and the better it will work. But the opposite is true with midge patterns.
The most difficult thing about fishing these small patterns is that it can be difficult to hook fish. It's not unusual to miss hooking half or more of the trout that bite, and you in fact often don't even set the hook, because it doesn't work that well. Usually, either the trout accidentally hooks itself, or it doesn't get hooked at all.
A couple of things will help. Barbless hooks work best, as they meet with far less resistance to penetrating the lip of a trout. A small barbless hook has a point almost like a needle's, so it goes into the fish very easily. Without the barb, it's also easier to unhook the fish once you've landed it. (A seldom-mentioned advantage is that it's also far easier to unhook a barbless hook from your own hide when you accidentally snag yourself, or from a nice wool sweater.)
Another trick: Use a hook one size larger than the one you'd normally go to, but make sure to tie the fly extremely sparsely. Do this, and you can get away with using a slightly larger hook, and increase your odds of hooking the fish.
When retrieving a midge or most other nymphs, going fairly slow usually works best in the Black Hills. It's also interesting to consider how nymphs look in the wild. Underwater creatures that often spend most of their lives on the bottom or even under the mud, sand and stones of a lake, they're seen by you in a rare moment: in the open water, probably slowly rising toward the surface. This is the most dangerous time for them, as they're completely vulnerable to any fish that sees them floating upward.
After millions of years, this sight has been ingrained in the brains of the fish and triggers an instinctive response; this the fisherman takes advantage of. You can imitate the rise by moving the offering in little spurts, thus creating a sort of upward lift on the nymph. It must look natural to the trout, because the nymph fly's upward motion is often the trigger that moves the trout to snatch it up.
To fish for these trout, you can do something as simple as just standing on the shoreline and casting, or you can get out into the water. Being able to wade or move about the lake in a craft of some sort allows you to cover more water and get to some spots you wouldn't otherwise be able to reach. And for many, the fishing is just more fun when they're using more gear.
Wading will serve fairly well in lakes; you can get just a little bit away from shore and extend your reach. But most Black Hills anglers use some sort of craft. Few use canoes, but they're serviceable, and can be fairly easily hauled and loaded up. And of the human-powered craft, canoes and kayaks are the fastest. If the fish aren't biting so well, you can enjoy a quick paddle across the lake to a place at which you might catch fish -- or you can just explore the lake, which can be fun.
Belly boats have been used in the Hills for quite some time, and they're really well suited for the task. Big advantages: relatively inexpensive, and extremely easy to transport to the lake -- you can just throw one into the pickup bed, or even in the back seat of the car.
But they're slow. Even with fins or dog paddles on, you won't be breaking any speed records. They also sit low in the water, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Being low, you tend not to spook fish; you can get much closer to rising fish without them seeing you. However, casting also gets more difficult when you're up to your chest in the lake.
Many anglers at Black Hills lakes are now using portable pontoon-type boats: one-person craft that can be propelled with flippers or oars. They're easy to transport, though not quite so much so as are the belly boats. On the water, they move faster than a belly boat -- though not as fast as a canoe. And the fisherman sits up a bit higher than in a belly boat, making casting easier. In them, you also don't have to dress as warmly in neoprene waders, because you are completely out of the water or mostly out of it.
Black Hills anglers also go after brown trout and brook trout in the lakes. Those fish don't get stocked in the lakes; natural reproduction suffices. At Pactola, for instance, brown trout spawn in Rapid Creek up above. Some enter the lake and grow quite large. Deerfield Lake contains some brook trout, which spawn in Castle and Ditch creeks up above. They make a nice change of pace from the rainbows.
These fish also can be caught by working the most secluded fishing spots available in the Black Hills: the beaver dam ponds. These are most common on the smaller streams in the highest elevations of the Black Hills. You'll have to explore to find them, which will as often as not be in the Black Hills' spruce habitat, usually the moistest areas at the higher elevations. The mosquitoes can be thick -- but so too the trout, if you find a worthwhile pond.
You'll most likely be catching brown and brook trout in these ponds. Wild fish, they are notoriously skittish. The ponds' surfaces are often glass-smooth, which makes them very difficult to fish.
Use the lightest fly line possible. Part of the most accomplished fishing technique involves hunting and stalking the trout, keeping a low profile in a manner somewhat similar to the approach you'd take to pursuing a buck. You'll find it challenging
but rewarding fishing.
And it's almost always far away from the mainstream of fishing pressure. It'll generally be just you -- you alone amidst what remains some of the wildest Black Hills fishing.
You can combine that fishing with an evening of casting on one of the high-country lakes for rainbow trout. And that makes just about a perfect fishing day in the middle of summer.