Think that summer's no time to be fishing for trout? Maybe you need to be be hitting some of these Dakota hotspots. (July 2007)
Photo by Ralph Hensley.
There are times that you leave the hip boots in the vehicle and just head straight out into the water.
It was one of those times. Far below, the Great Plains cities roasted under a midsummer sun. Up where I was, in the Black Hills, the air was cooler, and the water cold.
It takes such temperatures to sustain and nurture the wild trout that live in the Black Hills. Once the water temperature gets higher than 70 degrees, they risk dying in a heated environment that they can't long tolerate.
I waded slowly upstream in old tennis shoes. The water was as it should be -- cold enough that my appendages could take only a few minutes at a time in the frigid flow before turning a gray-blue color. A distinct numbness set in shortly after.
Time to cast. Before me flowed the head of a pool where water poured in over the riffles. That, I knew, was where the trout lie. They were feeding, coming up occasionally to roll their smooth backs across the water surface like little dolphins entertaining a one-man audience.
I cast just into the edge of the current. It was a dry fly on the tippet. The fish would probably have hit more often with a nymph, but a dry fly is often more fun. It drifted naturally for 6 inches before a brown trout nipped it off the water and plunged down to the bottom of the pool. The hook set into the jaw, and the fish rushed up to the surface to do a full belly flop.
That was the last bit of acrobatics before I managed to pull the hook free and release the fish. Brown trout in the 10-inch range are quite common in Rapid Creek and the other big Black Hills streams, which are good places to visit at this time of year in order to get out of the heat.
But of course there are others.
The smaller trout lakes in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the on the prairie in North Dakota offer good summertime fishing. Though the hot months are sometimes past the prime time of the year, you can still pick up some nice fish, especially when you get on the water very early in the morning before temperatures heat up.
And the Missouri River in both states harbors truly trophy-sized trout. By standards of fish size, the deep water in the Missouri is one of the best locations in North America to pick up big, fat trout weighing multiple pounds.
In North Dakota, several of the better small lakes for catching trout this summer are expected to be Northgate Lake in Burke County and Lightning Lake in McLean County.
Lightning, a round-shaped lake along McClusky Canal, isn't large. When full it is about 18 acres and is nearly 24 feet deep, but it is a rich prairie lake with a good food supply for trout. They grow to 25 inches there, with quite a few fish running 20 inches long.
Northgate is similarly rich in microorganisms, which supply a good food base for trout and other species. Northgate Lake is more of the conventionally long reservoir-like lake. It is 135 acres when full, and just over 24 feet deep. Northgate Lake also has crappie, bluegills and largemouth bass, so anglers might easily pick up a mixed bag there.
Anglers at these lakes cast the usual fly-fishing patterns to catch fish. In the lake environment, nymphs and streamers tend to be the more successful patterns, because they imitate the lifeforms that these venues' fish eat. And sinking line is used most of the time to fish these flies. That's particularly true in summer when the water is warmer and trout seek out the cooler depths.
Often, North Dakota fishermen chose longer rods for this type of fly-fishing. Some 10-footers can be used to power a fly-line into the wind. However, being that long, they're also more tiring to use over long periods.
Several other good trout lakes favored by anglers in the Bismarck area include Fish Creek Reservoir and Raleigh Reservoir.
Don Newcomb, of Mandan, N.D., fishes those lakes. Newcomb is treasurer of the Missouri River Fly Fishers. Thus, he and members of the club also fish the Missouri River, of course.
The Missouri River and the small lakes are somewhat different. "It is more or less still water," said Newcomb. "We don't have any streams."
Some of the trout grow quite large -- and the growing appeal of fly-fishing probably explains the growth of Missouri River Fly Fishers.
"Our club seems to grow and grow," said Newcomb.
Below Garrison Dam in North Dakota, anglers fish for cutthroats and browns. "It is fast, so I use a big boat," said Newcomb. "With the water so low, it is treacherous."
But the fast current adds to some of the fun. Newcomb catches brown trout there that weigh 4 1/2 pounds. "Most of the fish are 4.5 pounds and are browns," he said. "They are nice fish when you get them." That's generally larger than the trout in the still-water lakes, which are often 2 to 3 pounds.
"I like mostly streamers," said Newcomb. "Wooly Buggers and different types of streamers. Sometimes when the midges hatch in spring there is a strong hatch. I use floating line and get real shallow in spring. It is mostly sight fishing where you try to sneak up on them.
"Later in the summer you go deep to sinking line to get down 20 feet. That is usually best because the water gets pretty warm. We had 100-degrees last year. Usually when it gets that warm I go bass fishing. It is more stressful on the trout when the water gets warm."
When summertime water temperatures in the Missouri River below Garrison run in the 50s and 60s, that's not the case. "Downstream for 10 miles it is pretty good," said Newcomb. "Mostly you stay up below the fast water.
Anglers at North Dakota's Lightning and Northgate lakes cast the usual fly-fishing patterns to catch fish. In the lake environment, nymphs and streamers tend to be the more successful patterns, because they imitate the lifeforms that these venues' fish eat.
"They eat smelt. I use big white Zonkers, usually. Or big white Wooly Buggers work well, too. You dead-drift them, or cast out with a type 2 sinking line and peel them. The cutthroats don't quit until they get it. If they miss it the first time, they come again. They don't quit until they get it.
They are a lot more aggressive than the browns. The browns see the boat and they are gone."
In South Dakota when summer turns hot, anglers can also catch trout in the Missouri River, where the fish lurk in the depths and along the current of the tailraces. Here, it is rainbow trout that anglers are after below Oahe Dam, and brown trout below Fort Randall Dam. Lots of forage fish swim about there, as well, so once trout get big enough to devour other fish, their growth rate is rapid.
"It changes by season," said Bob Hanten, fish biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in Pierre. "When they are small in size they are eating different types of bug hatches, mayfly hatches."
That changes to a more substantial diet later on.
"Depending on what is available coming through the dam -- rainbow smelt, and later in the year when gizzard shad move up into the tailrace they take advantage of the juvenile gizzard shad," said Hanten. "That is how they get big, when they switch over to the fish diet. You see 2- to 6-pound rainbow trout. They can grow, with estimates of 4 pounds in two years. We have documented anglers catching rainbows in the tailrace as big as 13 pounds. There aren't many, but there are some real trophy rainbow trout."
All the trout are stocked, and there is no natural reproduction. The fish are coming from McNenny State Fish Hatchery west of Spearfish while the Cleghorn Springs Hatchery in Rapid City is presently being renovated.
One of the main stocking areas below Oahe is at the Oahe Marina. There, a small pond connected to the main river channel protects the newly stocked fish from the hectic Missouri. Once stocked, the trout stay in there for a couple of weeks before venturing out into other parts of the river. And of course, they can be caught readily at that time. Stocking is usually in April for the 10-inchers.
Prime time for catching this area's really large trophy fish comes during late February thorough March. That's when the 2- to 10-pound trout are taken most easily.
But in summer, flyfishermen also pick up these fish on the edge of the main current below the dam. Walleye fishermen will accidentally catch some when fishing there.
The SDDGFP also stocks rainbows in the fishing pier area in the Pierre city limits. Generally, the trout inhabit all of the area from the dam downstream through Pierre, and even into Lake Sharpe. The stilling basin below Oahe Dam can also be a good place to catch them.
"With the rainbow trout stockings in the Pierre area, when they are initially stocked in the Oahe Marina they spend the first two weeks in that marina basin, in that marina pond," said Hanten. "Then they move out into the tailrace and can be found from the tailrace down to Pierre to the bridges. Some do show up at the fishing pier. We have documented a few trout in the lower end of Lake Sharpe later in the summer. But most of them, as the water temps warm up, are in the cooler water right here below the dam. It holds most of the trout up in the river or tailrace portion."
The growth rate is so swift that anglers can go after trophy fish that are only 2 or 3 years old. They'll weigh several pounds by then, and get even larger as they ravenously snatch up the baitfish that are plentiful below the Missouri River dams. All they have to do is survive for a while, particularly that first period when they are less than a foot long and quite vulnerable to anglers. Of course, they're stocked to be caught, but a fair portion do make it long enough to bend rods and break lines.
"The larger trout are the ones that survive, that are caught and released, or are never caught," said Hanten. "They are the carryover trout. That is what most of the flyfishermen and ice-fishermen are targeting. They are looking for the larger sized trout. Typically the tailrace food is not limiting. There is always food present. They can put on some pretty impressive growth."
And the conditions are stable enough below the Missouri River dams that anglers can catch these trout during summer, and all the rest of the year.
For the classic trout fishing scene, the Black Hills in western South Dakota provides Western stream and lake fishing that compares favorably with other areas of the West.
During the heat of summer, fishermen typically head for the higher elevations where temperatures are cooler and the trout are in a feeding mood.
The three top streams are Spearfish Creek, Castle Creek and Rapid Creek. In recent years, Rapid Creek has been hit hard by diatoms, a strange growth that attaches to stream beds and rocks, killing insects and limiting fish populations. It's hoped that a phosphorous treatment in Rapid Creek last spring will help alleviate that problem in the future.
Castle Creek and Spearfish Creek haven't been affected yet, at least not in a major way. All of the area through and above Spearfish Canyon has excellent fishing for brown trout in the main stretches, and for brookies in the headwaters.
The best area of Castle Creek lies from Deerfield Dam downstream for a few miles.
"That is a little more difficult to fish, but there are certainly some quality fish in there," said Mark Vickers, with the Black Hills Fly Fishers in Rapid City.
Flyfishermen use 3- to 5-weight fly rods to catch these fish. All kinds of flies are used, with the overall characteristic being that they generally run on the small and sparse side.
"I think the bugs have changed to some extent," said Vickers. The deterioration of Rapid Creek probably has resulted in fewer insects for trout to eat.
"I don't think we have the number of large aquatic insects, stone flies and caddis flies, as we did," said Vickers. "There are some mayflies, Baetis, chironomids, mostly smaller aquatic insects. In my opinion, the number of caddis is well down on Rapid Creek. You used to be able to go out and catch an outrageous number of fish on an elk hair caddis."
When it really gets hot this July and August, beaver ponds are especially attractive. The location of these ponds changes from time to time. Beavers will go into an area and build dams. Then they dine on aspens, birch and other small trees and shrubs. When they have depleted their food, or at least when they have to walk too far to get to it, they will move to a different area.
Generally, the dams are located in the headwaters of streams not only of the main streams, but also many smaller ones as well. These back up enough water to provide homes for lots of brook trout. They grow larger in these ponds because they have plenty of food and a good place to winter.
Stealth is essential when fishing for beaver pond trout. Usually the angler makes an approach from below the dam. The water is often glass still, and quite clear. Typically, you can see the trout swimming about a
nd feeding near the surface. That means the trout also can spot you if you have a high profile. Sometimes you have to crawl up on your hands and knees.
And be especially careful when casting; the fish can be so spooky that they will dart away in terror as the fly line flies overhead, before it even settles down on the water. So, the best conditions are those with a slight breeze that sends a ripple across the water. That helps hide the angler.
Under those conditions, the flies float down on the water near the beaver pond trout. If they are hungry and aggressive, the trout will race each other to pick up your fly. When you hook one, try to make as little commotion as possible when playing and landing it so as not to spook the rest of the fish. As always, these trout are most easily released when caught with barbless hooks.
And in that way you can keep fishing the beaver pond and catching more fish. More than likely, you'll eventually spook the fish. But one of the nice things about beaver ponds is that there seldom is only one. The beavers often make a string of them along a small stream. And so you can continue working your way from one pond to another and catch trout from each pool.
All of this angling takes place within the pines and aspens of the mountains in the Dakotas, where even the July heat can't stop the good trout fishing.
Find more about Great Plains fishing and hunting at: GreatPlainsGameandFish.com