September 30, 2010
Early-spring trout angling couldn't be better than what you'll find at these Black Hills hotspots. (April 2007)
Photo by Lynn Burkhead
Patches of snow still dotted the scene under some of the shady areas amongst the ponderosa pines and blue spruce as I made my along the edge of the stream. As trout fishing days go, this was good.
By April the fishermen are out, but not too many. The feel of winter still lingers in the air in the deep canyons through which the streams run -- but at this time of year the trout are growing restless, and hungry, and while nothing dimpled the water's surface, activity stirred below.
I cast a Hare's Ear nymph out into the tail of the fast water and let it drift toward the pool downstream. In this type of fishing it's hard to tell when a trout bites; in fact, most strikes are probably never even noticed. But the trout that took the nymph was so determined that it pulled the line and hooked itself.
This trout took off on a jumping spree across the pool. When it came to hand, it turned out to be a 10-inch brown trout, which is in the common size range of trout caught in the major Black Hills streams.
You don't have to be an expert angler to catch trout in Black Hills streams this time of year. But if you gain the knowledge of one, then you'll certainly catch more fish. Someone like Hans Stephenson, owner of Dakota Angler and Outfitter fly shop in Rapid City, has been fishing this area for 15 years, and he's seen lots of fishermen use many techniques to go after these fish successfully.
The trout fishing goes on all year. Unlike some other species that get sluggish during the months when the water is cold, trout maintain a hearty appetite all through the cold seasons, which is good, because the northern sector of the Rocky Mountains, within which the Black Hills area is a part, has a lot of ice and frigid water.
April is on average a raw month. Snowstorms, often bringing some of the heaviest snowfall of the year usually occur in the mountains at this time. "We fish year 'round," said Stephenson. "But April is when things get a little more consistent. We like to fish anytime in the wintertime when it gets above 40 degrees; that is a good day to fish. Some of our best fishing has been in January when you get those warm days. But most people start fishing more regularly come March and April."
According to Stephenson, the best trout streams in the Black Hills right now are Rapid Creek, Spearfish Creek and Castle Creek.
Rapid Creek starts in the central Hills; there it's wild, and not fished too much. Winter lasts longest at its headwaters. The stretch that flows into Pactola has an easy hiking trail -- complete with wooden footbridges -- along it for miles. Part of the Deerfield Trail system, it perfectly suits hikers and fishermen.
From there it runs into Pactola, and then out into the basin below, which is considered some of the best trout fishing in the Black Hills, and then heads toward the Plains, but for about 15 miles it courses through terrain plastered alternately with housing and rather remote, secluded areas. Some of this stretch has become compromised for trout fishing by diatoms, which mysteriously started growing in large quantities a few years ago.
Diatoms are normally found in cold glacial streams, but for some reason, they've really taken off here, damaging the trout stream by covering spawning areas and insect habitat. In the stream, the diatom areas look something like wet toilet paper.
Biologists are still studying this lifeform, which apparently is flourishing better here than anywhere else. This past year they have worsened in some areas and retreated in others.
On the edge of Rapid City, Rapid Creek flows past the Cleghorn Springs Fish Hatchery and then into Canyon Lake. From there downstream through Rapid City is some of the best trout fishing available, with trout numbers comparable to the finest smaller blue ribbon trout streams in the West. Lots of trout habitat has been put in there over the past two decades by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
The stretch of this stream that Stephenson recommends most highly is the basin area below Pactola Dam. "The best area by far is the catch-and-release area below Pactola," he said. "With supplemental stockings and the wild fish, it is good."
Both brown trout and rainbow trout are in this stretch. You can see them finning below the water surface on about any day.
"They did decide to do a little bit of stocking because of the lower fish numbers," said Stephenson. "It still has a fair amount of wild fish. It has become a nice mix. They didn't saturate the fishery with too many hatchery rainbows. Some of the rainbows they put in are holding over nicely, and acting like the typical basin fish we see. They're getting fat and are feeding on scuds and midges. But there are still nice wild browns and rainbows in there, too. "
Both species are spawning here. And of course, brown trout successfully spawn in all of the streams in the Black Hills, except for the creeks, which harbor brook trout.
"The size (in Pactola Basin) averages 12 to 14 inches," said Stephenson. "And then there are a fair number of 15- to 17-inch-range fish, and a few that you come across in the 19- to 21-inch range. There are some bigger browns, but also some rainbows in that size range, too. That is all catch-and-release. It is the first two miles downstream from Pactola."
This area is managed for trophy-sized fish. And it's the place that many visiting flyfishermen come to first.
Much further up the watershed lies Castle Creek, which flows out of the high country of the Black Hills. Some anglers go after brook trout in the headwaters of Castle Creek and nearby Ditch Creek. This is one of the last streams to thaw out each spring. It's also remote, with not much fishing pressure.
Above Deerfield Lake, Castle Creek is smaller as it flows through the Black Hills spruce forests there. The fishing is almost like stalking, often amidst overhanging limbs and bushes over and beside the stream. But once Castle Creek emerges from Deerfield Dam, it becomes one of the best trout streams in the Hills. It's especially noted for its large brook trout.
"Castle Creek below Deerfield is good," said Stephenson. "Last summer with the heat, we saw a lot of weed growth. The numbers of brown trout are actually going up, based on what the SDDGFP data is. Brookies are also very much a part of that fishery. Some are 10 or 12 inche
s, which for brook trout is really very nice. There is a better chance of catching brook trout there below Deerfield in Castle Creek than anywhere else in the Hills."
The stream below Deerfield tends to be deep, and rich in nutrients. Wading fishermen can easily take a plunge into a dropoff hole. The stream is different from Rapid Creek in that respect, in that the holes often drop down deep very quickly.
"That fishery is pretty good from the dam down to where it crosses Slate Prairie Road," said Stephenson. "Once you get down below Slate Prairie Road, they are planning a project to restore some of the stream that has been mucked up by cattle grazing. It has a lot of potential if they get that project pushed through. There are areas where the stream has been widened by cattle walking in it."
Further downstream, the fishing tends to the unspectacular, but there are still fish, and the scenery is excellent. "The Mystic area hasn't been as good lately," said Stephenson. "You are better the closer to the dam you are."
Spearfish Creek, up in the northern Hills, is celebrated as a beautiful piece of water amid a fantastic setting. Much of it flows through Spearfish Canyon, which is a National Scenic Byway. It's a favorite of tourists, and of people who like to look at the golden aspen and birch leaves in the fall.
For fishermen, it's a stream with easy access. There are pullouts along most of the stream. And in the town of Spearfish, excellent sections of the creek flow right through the city park.
"Spearfish Creek has been good," said Stephenson.
A late-spring snowstorm last April dropped more than 7 feet of snow in one downfall in the creek's watershed. The resulting run-off changed some of the holes.
"The late snowstorm (in) early spring of 2006 changed things around somewhat," said Stephenson, "and the fish are in different locations. There are a lot of downed trees in certain sections, and it moved some sediment around. The holes that I go to are quite a bit different, but the fishing is still quite good. There are good numbers of fish throughout the stream."
Stephenson likes to fish the entire area to get different kinds of fishing. Several small ponds backed up by little dams lie along the stream in Spearfish Canyon. "Yates Pond and Hanna Canyon give you a nice amount of fishing throughout the day," he said. "I fish the stream, and then take breaks and fish the pond."
Another pond is on Roughlock Falls Road, just above Spearfish Canyon Lodge. This is on Little Spearfish Creek, which is exceptionally clear. Soaring above are the huge limestone walls that make this one of the most photographed spots in the Black Hills. Both brown trout and brook trout swim Spearfish and Little Spearfish creeks.
As in other parts of the Black Hills, the browns tend to be in the bigger, deeper sections. The brookies are mostly in the tiny headwater sections, which the brown trout don't do as well in.
"(Spearfish Creek) is swampy, and clear," said Stephenson. "There are a ton of fish in there. If you find the right beaver dam on it you can do pretty well."
Stephenson recommends moving quite a bit to find feeding fish. "Some of the fish are moving around," he said. "I don't know if it is the higher flows moving them throughout the canyon, but some areas aren't holding as many fish. Others do hold then. I like bouncing around finding the pocket water. There are still good numbers of fish. It is mostly nymph fishing. You should be willing to cover some water until you find the holes and pockets. Then you can get into quite a few fish. It is mostly brown trout."
Spearfish Creek disappears partway down he canyon, as the water is diverted into a decades-old pipe --part of an old electrical power production setup that was run by Homestake Mining Co. -- that takes it to the city park area of town.
Inside the city of Spearfish, the stream has lots of artificial habitat where it flows through the city park.
"Spearfish in town has been good," said Stephenson. "One of our guides, Jamie, lives up there and fishes it quite a bit. The fishing has been quite good. On average the fish are bigger in town than in the rest of the stream. It is a nice opportunity that not a lot of people are looking into."
Anglers can also visit the grounds of the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery in Spearfish. It is now run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and takes an interesting look at the history of trout stocking in the Rocky Mountains. There is a museum on the campus-like grounds, with an old hatchery train car, and even a hatchery boat used on Yellowstone Lake.
For equipment, small is usually best in the Black Hills.
"In April, things get better as far as dry-fly fishing," said Stephenson. "Blue-winged olives, midges, caddis -- all are hatching. Then a few small black stoneflies still around -- size 18 and 20 stoneflies. They are one of our most common stoneflies. They are below Pactola, up Spearfish Canyon and below Deerfield. For subsurface you use a small Black Copper John. On top, we end up using a couple different things -- you can cover them with black elk hair caddis. But we also use the Henryville Special."
For nymph patterns he likes include micro mayfly nymphs, glass bead midge larvae, Copper John, WD-40.
"There are a lot of smaller patterns that people use," said Stephenson. "There are a lot of different flies out there. But if you tie them yourself, you need to tie them sparse. They are slender. The average Pheasant Tail that people tie is way too fat. With midge patterns, there is not much to it. It is a slender little grub. It is some thread on a hook, and we like to add a glass bead."
Last year Stephenson was fishing 16 and 18 size flies during part of spring, but by summer it was size 20s clear down to size 24s.
"Most people we see out there are fishing flies that are too big on tippet which is too heavy," he said. "Use 6X tippet and try to get as close to size as possible -- 18 to 22 size dry flies. The closer you get to the size and shape of the bug, the more fish you are going to catch."
For a fly rod he prefers a 4-weight. "It is a perfect all-around size for the Black Hills," he says. "A lot of people will try to convince themselves they need a short rod, but we don't like anything much smaller than 8.5 feet. The reason being, if you limit the length of your rod, you also limit the ability to mend, roll cast, to lift the line off the water. And for a lot of our streams, that is a big disadvantage."
The trout streams here compare very favorably to the top areas in the rest of the West. "It is not like Montana, like we are fishing big rivers," said Stephenson, "but for small-stream fishing, it is good. When we have higher water conditions we are still extremely lucky. We have great fishing right i
n the middle of Rapid City -- when you get off work you have good fishing in five minutes. Varietywise, the Black Hills are outstanding. As we go into another wet cycle, it gets better and better. It is not as good as in the late '90s, but we get used to such a high level of fishing that when it declines a little bit, we get nervous. But even when it is down, the numbers we have are better than the Western average for blue ribbon trout streams."