The Black Hills offer truly great and consistent trout fishing, but if it's a jumbo-sized rainbow that you're really after, we've found what may be the absolute best spot in the Dakotas for taking them. (April 2009)
It may say Trout Bum on his hat, but there's nothing "bum" about Don Polovich's trout-fishing ability when it comes to taking rainbows like this one! The Rapid City angler likes to hit the Missouri River this time of year and thinks it's the best spot for taking truly large rainbows. Photo courtesy of Don Polovich.
It's still early; the warmth has not yet returned to the prairie, and fishermen this time of year are much scarcer than the big trout that swim below the surface in the Missouri River.
The Dakotas reign as a place recognized for walleye fishing. And it is that species the vast majority of anglers come here to pursue. But unknown to most, there is another denizen of this prairie fishing paradise that breaks lines and tears up tackle. Big trout lurk along the shorelines right now in the still water and on the edge of the current in our big river.
For the most part, the trout are huge. The Missouri River is by far the best place in the Dakotas to pick up a trophy-sized trout.
The fishing for giant trout in the Missouri is even better than that found in the Black Hills in western South Dakota, the place most Dakota anglers go for trout. The Missouri has such a good food supply for trout that they grow into very fat and feisty fish, and they do so very quickly.
As a result, a merely "average" trout caught in the Missouri might easily be larger than the biggest fish you take from a Black Hills stream.
That is one of the big reasons why Rapid City, S.D., angler Don Polovich pursues the big ones in the Missouri. One of his favorite spots is below Oahe Dam near Pierre. Right now is the very best time to fish there; the fishing for the really big trout is at its peak in late March and early April. Similar fishing can be found in the two main tailrace areas of the big lakes -- below Oahe in South Dakota and below Sakakawea in North Dakota.
Polovich concentrates his fishing below Oahe Dam. There, anglers will find variable waters, from completely calm and still "lake" water, to the biggest torrent in all the Dakotas.
All of it holds trout, but they move around. The variety of waters makes an interesting fishing experience. It's one that changes from hour to hour on some days as conditions change. The flow from the big turbines at Oahe, for example, quickly alter the fishing patterns down below.
Polovich concentrates on the still waters below the dam during most of his fishing trips.
It was in some of that quieter water near the marina below Oahe Dam that I found him casting on a sunny but cold day in early April several years ago. The breeze fluttered out of the north. The ripples moved across the water surface. And the pet beagle sat by the pickup, expectantly.
Polovich moved slowly along the shoreline. On most trips to the Missouri, he uses a small one-man pontoon boat that is easy to launch and take out. It's slow, but very good for getting into the water quickly. It's one of the most basic vessels for plying these waters.
On this particular day, the quest was even simpler -- fishing the shoreline on foot. He was wearing neoprene waders because you never know when you might have to plunge into the lake if a big one gets on. And sometimes you can move about to get in a better position for casting if you can wade the shoreline. The waders also are warm, protecting the fisherman not only from frigid water, but also from arctic blasts of wind.
And on this day, though it was early April, the only thing that separated a fairly nice day from a rather cold day was the sunshine beaming down out of the blue sky. Many outings in the Dakotas are biting cold during April. Winter gives up its grip on the High Plains reluctantly.
As Polovich made his way along that stretch of still water, he knew there were likely fish there because he had fished it other years at exactly this time of year. Something seems to particularly trigger the feeding instinct in early spring: Perhaps it's the increasing sunshine and the longer days. Or, maybe it is the slightly warming water temperatures.
Whatever the cause, the trout seem to pile up in some of the areas near shore. And that is where fishermen can most easily catch them during this time of year.
Unlike some of the Western rivers or the Black Hills trout streams just a couple of hundred miles away, the Oahe tailrace trout aren't as likely to be caught on dry flies. They prefer bigger delicacies that are fished well below the water's surface. And so, nymphs and streamers make up the main presentations in the Missouri.
Polovich often uses Woolly Buggers or Pheasant Tail nymphs. The Pheasant Tails in size 14 may be the best. The Woolly Buggers usually are of a larger size, perhaps imitating crawdads or small baitfish.
It is important to get these flies down fairly deep. Some people use straight sinking lines on their fly rods. Polovich often uses sinking-tip lines. These drop a fly down more than 6 feet, which is in the depth where many of these early-spring trout hang out.
When Polovich let the fly line lie down on this prime water, there wasn't another fisherman in site. Granted, it was early afternoon on a weekday when it's less likely to be crowded. But even on weekends, you can easily get a good fishing spot along one of the best places in the Dakotas to catch not only trout, but also the walleyes and other species.
When his fly plunks down on the water, Polovich begins a count to about 8 seconds. This gives the sinking-tip line the time needed to pull the fly down into the depths.
Many of the food sources in this area of the river have a rapid movement, a kind of darting action. Crawdads, of course, will crawl about on the bottom. They also dart quickly when they sense danger.
Nymphs often rise upward toward the water surface. It's not necessarily a darting action, but it is an upward movement.
Both of these types of movements can trigger an instinctive attack from a prey fish such as trout. That's why Polovich often uses a quick pull of the line to get the fly to rush upward in this rapid movement. He did that on the April day I was out with him.
Something immediately attacked the fly and the fight was on. The fish didn't
want to come up; it pulled hard, and whatever it was on the end of the line was big enough to bend to 9-foot fly rod into a deep arc. Line ran off the reel, for an angler can't apply too much pressure on this size fish or the tippet will break off and the fish will escape. You never know for sure what is on the end of the line in the Missouri River. That's one of the things that make it so much fun to fish there.
Fortunately, the water in the tailrace area is mostly free of obstructions. The only thing a fighting fish might get tangled up in is a large boulder on the bottom. But even those don't tend to tangle line. They only snag the occasional fly or lure. Every piece of woody vegetation in this stretch of river has long since been swept downstream in the flows that sometimes roar through parts of the tailrace.
So, the fish was on its own in the fight. It came near enough to the surface to show the silvery-colored flash -- the look of wildness. As hard as it might be to believe, all the rainbow trout in this river have been stocked there by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Once in place, they are not capable of natural reproduction, but that is of no matter. After the trout have been in the river for a year, they take on a wild nature.
All of the less desirable traits of the hatchery fish have long since vanished. These rainbows live in the wild, they eat the food of wild fish, and they bite and fight like the wildest trout in North America. The one thing that makes them different from the wild fish in other places is that they grow so quickly to a huge size.
And that was the type of fish Polovich had on the end of his line. The fight lasted more than five minutes as the fish was led in once, twice, three times, only to have it power away in panicked desperation. Finally, Polovich dipped a small hand net down into the water and scooped up the big rainbow. Such nets are handy for landing that size of fish.
Once in the net, it was easy to dislodge the hook from the ravenous maw of the fish. And then Polovich gently released it back into the Missouri. It would grow even larger in this excellent river ecosystem.
"Any trout you catch in the Missouri River system is going to be worth mounting -- hanging on the wall," Polovich said. "They are silvery. They have a nice shiny kind of chrome look to them. They are stocked, but they are wild."
There is no lack of enthusiasm in the trout that are caught this time of year. Trout are coldwater fish and they relish the frigid waters pouring down the Missouri in early spring.
"The first part of the year, I start looking for them," Polovich said. "It is toward the end of March over there. That is when the ice gets off the bays. You start having access to it. Anytime there is open water in those bays, you can give it a try -- usually the end of March or into April. They may just be cruising the shallows looking for nymphs or crayfish or small baitfish, frogs or anything like that. Frogs start showing up that time of year."
Just measuring the length of the fish can be misleading in considering just how big they really are. Their weight for their length is tremendous. The diet of small fish in these fertile waters puts weight on the trout faster than anywhere else in the Dakotas, or even in much of the more famous trout country in the Rockies to the west.
"The size runs 14 to 18 inches," Polovich said. "Occasionally, you will get something over 20. Then you hear of some much larger than that -- 20 or 24 inches. They are like footballs. They eat well. These are big-bodied fish."
For the most part, trout in the Missouri River are not difficult to get to when they are in the tailrace area. It's true that in both the Oahe and Sakakawea tailrace, walleye fishermen often catch trout in the deeper and faster portions of the river below the turbines. They use boats to get up into that area, and it requires a stable craft to do. But most of that fishing occurs later on during summer.
When the early-season tailrace fishing occurs below those dams, the fish are often close to shore. So, anglers can do quite well by standing on the shoreline and casting out to them.
"They can be right up next to shore," Polovich said. "The shoreline fisherman has an excellent chance to get some of these."
A fairly long fly rod is helpful. With the longer length, you can really get the fly out quite a ways. And sinking-tip lines with weighted nymphs tend to be a little harder to cast, compared to floating lines and small unweighted flies. Plus, a strong wind is the norm here, so fly-fishermen need plenty of power in a rod to push a fly and line into the gale.
The tailwater areas tend to be a bit more sheltered than the main part of Oahe and Sakakawea. But still, it can be windy. Polovich uses a 9-foot fly rod with 7-weight line.
"But a 5- or 6-weight will be fine also," he said.
Much of this fishing is on the sides of the quiet water, in small inlets and bays. Polovich often fishes the water near the marina below Oahe Dam, where there is no current. For this type of fishing, you don't need a big boat. In fact, Polovich usually uses a personal one-person pontoon boat. It can be loaded and unloaded by one person. No boat ramp is needed.
"You see an occasional float tube," he said. "But the personal pontoon has become very popular the past few years. They are easier to get around. You can use swim fins or oars to get to the area you want to fish. The water is really cold, but with a good pair of insulated waders, you will be fine. In my case, I use my little pontoon with the swim fins."
With this outfit, the only part of the body that is in the water is the ankles and feet. But with the insulated waders, that is not a problem.
With the small pontoon boat or float tube, flyfishermen can move along the shore and fish the prime spring trout waters on the Missouri River. With a smaller pontoon or float tube, of course, you'll want to avoid the main flowing part of the Missouri. Otherwise, you may end up out in the midst of it and washed a good many miles downstream.
The place Polovich fishes all the time is comparatively small.
"This is about the size of a football field," he says. "The water is constantly fluctuating in depth depending on how much water they are letting out of the turbines. It seems the more water there is, the deeper it is in the bay, and the fishing is a little better."
The time of day also doesn't seem to make much difference during this early spring trout fishing. The trout are hungry, and they are on the prowl.
"It's good in the middle of the day," said Polovich, "especially if it is a little overcast, you do better. The mornings and evenings can be good. Sometimes if there is a little bit of wind, it helps."
The fishing for the big tr
out slacks off in late May when the SDDGFP stocks catchable-sized rainbows into the tailwaters. But then, the fishing becomes fast for 8-inchers. That's not like the huge trophy trout that had been coming out of these waters earlier in April, but it does provide stock for future years. And lots of people enjoy catching the smaller fish, too.
As the water warms, the tailrace fishing offers all kinds of other fish. Sometimes, you can catch all of them.
"One of the popular flies besides a Pheasant Tail is a Woolly Bugger streamer," Polovich said. "You tie that in various colors from chartreuse to root beer color. Those work pretty well. When you are using those, there is a good chance you will catch anything -- smallmouth bass, walleyes, northerns, carp, white bass. As the water gets a little warmer, the smallmouth bass and white bass pick up in that same area, so there is a good variety of fish you can go after."
On one memorable afternoon, Polovich even hooked and landed a bigmouth buffalo measuring more than 30 inches and weighing about 15 pounds -- all while pursuing the trophy trout on the Missouri River.