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Top Trout Lakes Of The Black Hills

Top Trout Lakes Of The Black Hills

The Black Hills' lakes are home to the best summertime trout fishing in our region. Offered here is a guide to the most promising spots, direct from one of the Black Hills' most avid anglers.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

From the pine-covered ridge above the lake I could see the dimples of rising fish. In moving outwards, each arc of waves caught the sun, sending its rays glistening into the mountains under the warm afternoon sky.

Early summer is marvelous for trout fishing in the Black Hills. The water has yet to warm enough to turn the fish sluggish, so you can go out right now and find fish feeding in the middle of the afternoon -- as I was lucky enough to be doing.

Down by the lakeside, I could hardly wait to get the float tube in. I strung up my fly rod and tied on a Pheasant Tail, one of the favorite flies of many of the best Black Hills trout fishermen. I cast out and let the fly drop down under the water surface. As I stripped the line in and slowly maneuvered the tiny imitation through the water, it didn't appear that anything was near it. A chickadee flitted by; the breeze died under the rising heat. And then the line grew taut.

When it comes to catching trout in Black Hills lakes, the hooking is one of the most difficult things to pull off; sometimes, most of trout that bite aren't hooked. The reasons for this are somewhat of a mystery, and often enough, hooking them's mostly luck. But it's just such unknowns that distinguish fishing as a sport and an art, not a craft.

This time the hook did set, and the trout pulled mightily before jumping completely out of the water. Flopping, its scaly body reflected the sun. It was a rainbow trout, the most commonly stocked fish in the dozen-plus trout lakes scattered across the mountains of the Black Hills.

The fish came close enough for me to drag it over the top of the water and get a wet hand under its slimy little form. (It's always best to wet the hands before touching a trout. Otherwise, you rub some of the slime off of its skin, which then becomes much more susceptible to infection. When trout exhibit "patches" it's possible that dry-handed humans handled them improperly.)


I unhooked the fly from this one, and it swam off quickly, not too tired out, but probably not all that happy about what had just transpired, either.


This type of fishing experience is extremely common in the Black Hills. None of the lakes here were generated by geology and hydrology; all were created by humans. But for the most part they fit into the mountains, seeming just to snuggle in the right parts of the lower ravines and hollows, as if they were quite natural, and anglers ply them regularly -- especially at this point in the year, as some of the finest lake fishing for trout is to be had right now.

The fish resource is at present in good shape in Black Hills lakes, say South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks fish biologists. Part of that has to do with the big turnaround in recent years of Sheridan Lake, one of the old standbys in the Black Hills.

It wasn't too many years ago that Sheridan had been given up on as a trout lake, thanks to misguided amateur biologists stocking it with virtually every type of fish that can survive in South Dakota. The result was fierce competition for food among all species. A very frightened population of small trout that had to spend considerable amounts of time escaping the jaws of northern pike was consequently rapidly dwindling.

The northerns are still there, but the trout are doing much better. Biologists began stocking bigger trout -- big enough to avoid immediately becoming a snack for predators such as northerns and largemouth bass -- and anglers are now catching some creditable trout at Sheridan. Actually, they're some of the best average-sized trout ever to come out of the lake. The key: More trout are surviving to be caught by anglers.

"It is doing very well," said Jack Erickson, coldwater biologist with the SDDGFP in Rapid City. "We are stocking on an annual basis, and we are seeing good growth on the fish we put in. It looks like perch are doing well, too.

"We are putting trout in there, and in a larger size than in the 1990s. It looks like the predators aren't cropping them off. There is lots of food for them -- invertebrates and zoÖplankton."

The rainbow trout stocking plan in Sheridan now calls for putting in 9- to 10-inch rainbow trout. "We are seeing them growing up to 14 inches very quickly in a summer," observed Erickson.

Many of the rainbows in there are 12 to 17 inches long, and it's fairly common to catch a 16-incher. Always a highly fertile lake, Sheridan has a sediment problem at the upper end, where Spring Creek enters, that's caused by poor land-use practices in the watershed. But the lake does contain lots of nutrients, a situation that results in lots of fish food.

According to biologists, those small white dots sometimes seen in the water during summer are zoÖplankton. They serve as an indication of the large amount of fish forage fostered by the lake's waters. And trout and other fish species devour them with gusto.

Back when Sheridan Lake was in a decline as a fishery, the SDDGFP was stocking lots of fingerling trout, but they couldn't cut it in a lake seething with wild, hungry predators. "Everything from green sunfish to largemouth bass and northerns could be eating some of the smaller trout when we used to stock them in the past," Erickson noted. "Now it looks like the fish we are putting in are big enough to get past that gauntlet. In the past we looked at the northern as the culprit for low trout populations, but that may have been overzealous. We are seeing good fish numbers. Anglers seem to be returning to Sheridan to fish for multiple reasons."

One of the main reasons to fish the smaller lakes is to enjoy the scenery in these mountains.

"To have the best chance of catching a large rainbow, Sheridan is probably the best place to go," reported Dan James, SDDGFP resource biologist in Rapid City. "We are currently doing a creel survey there. The majority of them get caught. But they are nice and fat. They catch quite a few of them." Right now, about 10,000 rainbows a year are stocked in Sheridan.


The other big lakes in the Black Hills are Pactola and Deerfield, and their angling too is quite respectable. Like Sheridan, each has its own distinctive character.

Pactola is noted for being deep and cold. Its main water source is Rapid Creek upstream, and each spring, torrents of snowmelt rush in. And each summer, lots of water is let out of the dam for use in Rapid City and for irrigation in Rapid Valley. The water at Pactola has far fewer nutrients than does Sheridan's, so fish don't grow as quickly there.

"In Pactola, rainbow trout typically run a little smaller," remarked James, "and their condition is slightly less. But there are still plenty of them."

One of the most-frequented areas of the lake is the upper end at Jenny Gulch, just below Silver City, one of the shallower parts of the lake. Fishermen go there summer and winter, ice-fishing in the latter season. They take trout that run in the 11- to 12-inch range, mostly, but there's always the chance of getting a real whopper. A small number of huge brown trout live in Pactola; in the summertime, they're often way down deep.

Spinners and spoons with cowbells are favored lures at this lake. Anglers troll the entire lake and pick up fish wherever they wet their lines. "They catch trout all over the place," stated James.

And you just might latch onto one of the lake trout remaining in Pactola. Stocked a couple of decades ago, they're long-lived fish, so some from that era still survive. And lake trout are fighters: If you get one on, you won't be thinking that you've snagged a log or something.

"There are still some in there from past stockings," reported James. "This past summer we had the state lake trout record broken three times in one summer. Those were over-20-pound fish. There are some still around, but I would guess a lot fewer."

The numbers of those big lake trout are slowly dwindling, but replacements will eventually take their place: Several thousand lake trout were stocked last year, and biologists hope that in four years some of those stockers will weigh in at more than 5 pounds. Lake trout grow slowly, but they make up for that through notable longevity; those that escape the hook will tend to achieve impressive dimensions.

In Pactola, the lake trout complement is managed as a trophy fishery. The taking of a laker is pretty much a special event, because anglers don't catch a lot of these fish.

Farther up in the Hills lies Deerfield, the highest big lake in these mountains, and the most remote, its beauty having as a consequence something of a wild character. Of all the big lakes, it's the one used most exclusively for sportfishing. Quite a few freshwater shrimp can be found here.

A large boat is a pointless excess at Deerfield Lake, as a no-wake rule is in force, and in any case, you can fish the shoreline areas of most areas of the lake from a float tube. Paddling a canoe is a sensible and efficient way to move around this lake, which is expansive enough that going from one end of it to the other will guarantee plenty of exercise.

BROOK TROUT9-3Deerfield Lake06/02/04Jeremiah Hamon
BROWN TROUT24-8Canyon Lake12/09/90Wilfred H. Huether
CUTTHROAT TROUT6-5Rapid Creek09/24/89Dick Rossum
LAKE TROUT27-14Pactola Reservoir07/16/03Cory Snyder
RAINBOW TROUT19-4Oahe Tailwaters07/04/80Tom Moore
TIGER TROUT0-7Whitewood Creek06/15/89Ronald Glover

As with the other lakes, the upper end, where the stream enters the lake, is extremely popular with anglers -- lots of flyfishermen wade out in this area to cast flies this time of year -- but the entire lake offers decent prospects. And when you get off on a part of the shoreline that's some distance from any roads, you can fish all by yourself along hundreds of yards of lakefront available for your exclusive use.

Deerfield has in the past been regarded as the best trout lake in the Black Hills. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case.

"The rainbow trout in there are doing OK," remarked James. "Of the three lakes, it is in the poorest condition. It's not bad, but they aren't quite as fat as in the other two. It seems to be lacking a little bit lately. There are white suckers in there, and they seem to be competing with rainbow trout for insects and crayfish. Trout are still doing OK, but they could be better."

Deerfield has long been home to a respectable brook trout population. The brookies spawn upstream in Castle and Ditch creeks, and the baby fish make their way to Deerfield, where they have plenty of room to grow. Your chances of catching a big brookie in are better at Deerfield than just about anywhere else in the Black Hills.

"The state-record brook trout came out of Deerfield last year," said James, "about 9 pounds. They are still in there swimming around. They come from Castle Creek above."

In the past, the SDDGFP has resorted to lake eradication to get rid of suckers and other undesirable fish. "Deerfield used to have real high catch rates," James remarked, "good fish. That lake was renovated several years ago, and the trout responded real well. But the white suckers moved in, and they reproduce so well, there are a lot of

them -- and they eat a lot of food. There is less food available to the rainbow trout to eat; therefore, they don't do as well. The water quality is fine in Deerfield, but that competition of suckers would be the main factor."


The remainder of the trout fishing in Black Hills lakes is found in the smaller bodies of water, some pond-sized, all stocked with rainbow trout. Which one an angler visits at any given time will often depend on personal tastes.

One of the main reasons to fish the smaller lakes is to enjoy the scenery in these mountains, which is what draws in many tourists during summer. But if you fish early in the morning, you can usually have a lake pretty much to yourself. Among the most favored of these diminutive venues are Center, Bismarck, Dalton, Legion, Horse Thief, Major, Iron and Stockade lakes.

"With the small lakes, there is not as much difference," James asserted. "The small lakes are put-and-take. We stock the lakes with the expectation that the trout aren't going to grow much. Anglers will catch 90 to 95 percent of the fish during the season that we stock it. We look at the surface-acres and have standard stock rates. They are stocked pretty much at the same rate -- by the acre.

"So there isn't really a whole lot of difference. If a person wants to go and have a good day of fishing, all of the small ones are pretty much alike. It comes down to personal preference, scenery and aesthetics."

Lake trout are fighters: If you get one on, you won't be thinking that you've snagged a log or something.

Some of the highest-quality small lakes lie within Custer State Park, and summertime tourist traffic tends to be appreciably heavy. But these lakes in the park tend to stand up well to hot weather as the summer progresses.

"Some lakes are shallower than others, and they get hotter," noted James. "When the water temperature gets too hot, the activity level of the trout gets less, and so it may be tougher fishing for them. As they warm up, they hold less oxygen, so that is also a factor. For example, a lake such as Dalton Lake in August probably isn't as good to go fishing at. It is shallow, and fish will be less active, than, for instance, (those at) Center Lake in Custer State Park, which is deeper. They are both stocked at the same rate. But because of the water characteristics, the fish are more happy, and more likely to bite."


One of the really nice things about trout fishing in the Black Hills is that it accommodates anglers whose skills span a very wide range.

An expert flyfisherman possessing many years of experience, a vast store of knowledge, and excellent technique -- and plenty of anglers like that visit Black Hills venues -- will certainly enjoy the region's trout fishing there. But even a complete neophyte can do pretty well on occasion. The small lakes are stocked with trout that aren't exceptionally wary and thus can be caught on all kinds of offerings -- sometimes even if the lure, fly or bait isn't presented all that well -- and so are very appropriate for beginners and kids.

And of course you have the surrounding mountains, covered with ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce. It's hard to imagine an angler who wouldn't agree that at this time of the year, as the pleasant sunshine of summer in the northern Rockies beats down on the region's terrain, it's almost always a very good day for fishing.

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