Whether you target rainbows, browns or brookies, a trout-fishing spot sure to please you can be found in the Black Hills of Dakota this month. (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Elements of both winter and spring often combine to influence Black Hills trout fishing at this time of year.
On the one hand, the ice is melting, and some brave birds are singing the promise of spring as insect hatches come off the cold streams' waters on sunny afternoons; on the other, a mountain storm may still very well come sweeping out of the north to cover the purple delicacy of the Black Hills pasqueflower's blooms under a foot of wet snow. Such is the month of April, when spring doesn't really ever arrive, but rather merely teases the lover of warmth with something that's not really to be for another month or so.
Fortunately for the trout fisherman here, that's not of much consequence as far as the fishing's concerned. It may be more agreeable for the fisherman to cast away when bright sun lights up the stream bottom, but for the brown, brook and rainbow trout living in these parts, the laggard winter weather, all but inevitable in any case, is arguably pretty pleasant.
The trout are feeding very well at this time of year, and anglers craving the new season are out after them. About the only thing that slows the action down a bit is the run-off from the snows as the temperatures warm.
For the most part, some fishing is to be found somewhere during this entire spring season. The Black Hills area remains a good one for trout, and one not fished very hard compared to some of the places whose human population is much larger, such as the Front Range of Colorado. And because the fish aren't as big as those in the famous blue-ribbon streams farther west in Wyoming and Montana, we don't have an onslaught of out-of-state anglers going after trout here. The result? A fishery relatively unknown to the outside world. And for locals in a sparsely populated area such as South Dakota, it's a fairly regional fishery offering the opportunity for the angler to go out even on a spring weekend afternoon and fish streams and lakes with no one else nearby.
To the Dakota trout fisherman, some of the trout fishing photos from other states must appear humorous: Anglers lined up along a bank -- dozens at any one time -- casting away. For the trout in those waters, the beginning of the traditional trout fishing season must be a terrifying thing. Here in some of the less-traveled places in the Black Hills in April, you're about as likely to see an eagle or osprey or maybe a mink competing for a piece of the action as you are another angler.
For the most avid of trout anglers here, it all begins with the streams that course through the Black Hills. They are of the most interest to avid flyfishermen.
True, trout are not native to the Black Hills, but that's due only an accident of geology. The Black Hills are geologically and biologically part of the Rocky Mountains. Some Midwestern plant and bird species are present here because the Rocky Mountain West and the prairie and woods of the Midwest meet here, but for the most part this is a Western ecosystem. Ponderosa pines predominate, and stands of Black Hills spruce, aspen and birch are intermingled throughout. The streams course through these mountains, and they are mountains, not hills -- the name comes from Native American designations for the place.
The Black Hills region is rather isolated from the rest of the Rockies. The long stretch of dry prairie and badlands between here and the Big Horns, for instance, proved too far for trout to traverse. As a result, the steams were in olden days home to some rather unglamorous sucker-like species, and smaller minnows. Not that there's anything wrong with those -- but they aren't of sport-angling interest.
Anyone looking at the streams and mountains here in the 1800s would have been able to tell in an instant that this was prime trout water just waiting for the introduction of the salmonids. And that it got: Trout took off immediately and have been thriving in the Black Hills ever since. They have done so well that during most of the last century the natural reproduction has been good, and in the good streams, the fish have pretty much taken care of themselves.
In very recent years, trout have suffered from stream habitat being damaged by an invasive species in Rapid Creek. But that appears to be abating somewhat, and trout may be increasing in numbers again. In any event, the situation affects only some stream stretches.
To get started on Black Hills stream fishing, most anglers choose one of the bigger streams. Three main streams found here are in that category; a few less-noted ones with good fisheries are present as well.
Spearfish Creek, one of the most scenic streams to be found anywhere, starts in the higher elevations of the Black Hills and runs down Spearfish Canyon, a scenic byway so beautiful that people who don't even fish like to drive and bike through it to look at the canyon walls and very clear waters that babble along down the streambed.
Spearfish Creek has fairly steady water flows in it, and is often clear even after rainfall or snowmelt. It mainly holds brown trout, but a wild rainbow fishery is present in part of it, and brook trout appear farther up in the smaller headwaters. Most of these fish are wild, and the quality of this fishery is high by any standard.
Right now the headwaters area is likely to have snow in it, and may or may not be very fishable. Of course, some anglers will wade even through snow to catch fish. But a fair amount of ice might be on the stream in some places, as much of it is sheltered from the sun either by canyon walls or by thick stands of Black Hills spruce growing near the stream in much at higher elevations.
One of these headwater stretches runs through Roughlock Falls. It's beautiful enough that it's a popular location for weddings. So should you wish to get married and go fishing at the same time (in which case you'll know that you have the perfect spouse!), then this would be the perfect place for it.
The crystal-clear water in this part of the Black Hills flows through a limestone area -- and therein lies one of the difficulties for the fisherman: You can look 50 feet ahead and see trout swimming about and feeding on insects in this glassy water. The problem is that they can look back and see you eating lunch, or casting to them.
Much of Spearfish Creek gets enough fishing pressure to educate the trout fairly well. Those that are looking at you and seeing a big human predator aren't likely to bite. So it helps a lot to be sneaky. And using very light line and a light tippet is someti
mes a must.
But these fish can be caught. Up here in the headwaters you'll catch lots of wild brook trout. And there are also browns. As you move farther down the stream into the main part of Spearfish Canyon, the number of brown trout grows and the number of brookies dwindles. This is characteristic of all streams in the Black Hills.
The road runs very near the stream, and there are plenty of car pullouts. Access is easier than for any other stream in the Black Hills. And Spearfish Creek gets quite a bit of fishing pressure during summer. That's the tourism season in the Black Hills, of course, and there will be a fair number of non-resident flyfishermen who fish Spearfish Creek.
But in April, that's not the case. The fish for the most part have not seen many fishermen for six or seven months. And that makes this a good time for locals to head out and entice a few trout into biting.
At Savoy, which is toward the middle part of Spearfish Canyon, you may wish to walk the trail for a few hundred yards below the Latchstring Inn. Down below, the water pours over Spearfish Falls. This waterfall disappeared for decades as water was diverted out of the stream by Homestake Mining Company. But the company donated quite a bit of land for public ownership, and the waterfall is now pouring down again.
The trout fishing continues below, but as the stream gets to the lower part of the canyon, it starts disappearing into the limestone rock formations. This is a natural geological feature of the Black Hills. The water replenishes the underground aquifers. And this is also why there are so many caves in the Black Hills.
Eventually the water is collected in a pipe to prevent all of it from disappearing underground; from there it flows to the edge of the city of Spearfish to emerge at the edge of the city limits. Here you'll find some of the best trout fishing to be had in any stream flowing through a town in the West. The stretch through the city park has perfect access. And if the fish don't happen to be biting, you can visit the DC Booth Historic Fish Hatchery right there along the stream. The old hatchery grounds are preserved and include a railroad hatchery car used for fish stocking in the Rockies, a hatchery boat used in Yellowstone, and a museum with historic hatchery equipment. It's a unique place for Rocky Mountain trout fishermen to visit.
And in this stretch of Spearfish Creek in town, you'll find some of the largest brown trout in the Black Hills. Like all trout that live in streams where people pound the water, the trout can be finicky and challenging to catch. But that makes them more worthwhile in their own way for good fishermen to go after.
Rapid Creek, which sweeps out of the central Black Hills, has a similar pattern of brook trout in the headwaters and browns in the mainstream stretch. Parts of Rapid Creek have been hit hard by invasive organisms, so fishermen will not attain levels of success experienced here 10 years ago. And in some of the central stretches, it is still best to go somewhere else to fish.
The headwaters of Rapid Creek above Pactola tend to be muddy during much of spring. And that includes April. When it does clear, it is an interesting place to fish, with a bit of wildness to it. A nice trail runs along this stream from just above Silver City to about as far as you'll want to walk in one day.
This is perfect, because the access is great, but it eliminates anglers who are lazy or who aren't very serious. If you like to fish and are willing to walk a bit, this is a fun area to go to. You'll have most stretches entirely to yourself, even during the busiest part of summer.
The third big stream in the Black Hills is Castle Creek. And the best fishing in it is usually just below Deerfield Dam. The stream in this section is deceiving. It is often not very wide -- only 5 or 6 feet in places. But if you step off the bank, you might be in over your hip boots and perhaps even your head. The deep holes are wonderful places for trout. You'll find some of the biggest brook trout in the Black Hills here -- browns, too.
A number of other smaller streams here are good as well. And some of them, such as Crow Creek, French Creek and Sand Creek, have big fish. Smaller ones such as Spring Creek, Box Elder Creek and Ditch Creek have fish but very few anglers. The fish size runs smaller, however.
Trout fishermen will hit the lakes just as soon as the ice goes out. And some open water will appear during April. In fact, at times during spring lake fishing is the way to go if the streams are turbid from run-off.
Deerfield Lake is the highest-elevation large lake in the Black Hills. It's fun to fish it on a spring day when the sun warms your back and spring is in the offing. But even more special is casting for rising trout while an April snowstorm rages and snow falls from the sky. Such things make life in the mountains invigorating and wonderful.
Other good lakes this time of year include Pactola and Stockade. They are large and have lots of trout. Sheridan has some trout, but also lots of perch, with northerns and bluegills also in the mix. Pactola can be an intimidating lake to fish because it is fairly large. But this time of year, anglers take some of the larger trout that are caught from it.
Stockade is in Custer State Park, and it, too, has good fishing. The smaller lakes in the park are also good, with a put-and-take fishery for the most part. Anglers go to Legion, Center and Sylvan lakes to fish.
This is the very best time of year for catching large trout in these smaller lakes. The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks usually stocks 8-inchers in the lakes. Many are caught immediately. Some survive into the summer and grow to 10 inches or more.
But some evade hook and creel for the entire summer and even the winter ice-fishing season. Those fish have grown to a really nice size. And more important, after being in a Black Hills lake for that amount of time, they're effectively wild fish, and correspondingly smart. If caught, they put up a terrific fight -- and they take on the colors and look of a beautiful wild fish.
Some of these older survivors swim the lakes right now. And anglers will be catching some of them this April, even in the smaller Black Hills lakes such as Roubaix, Dalton, Major and Lakota.
Soon all of these will be bombarded by tourists seeking to catch a trout. But for right now, it's mostly locals out on one of those nice sunny days in April when spring looks to have arrived.
And the really nice thing about all of this trout fishing is that when that urge to hit the water for fishing takes hold, the trout will certainly be hungry, since they're coldwater fish -- so consequently, this will be a good time to go after them in the Black Hills.