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Coping With Black Hills Trout

Coping With Black Hills Trout

Trout fishing in the lakes and streams of the Black Hills can have its ups and downs at this time of year. Here are some hotspots for catching trout when your usual waters fail to produce.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

by Dick Willis

Looking out over the shimmering waters of the Black Hills in April, it's nice to catch the sun's rays beaming off the mountains. By looking across the water to the side of the sun, the trout fisherman can see one of those sights that bring a smile.

It's the bugs that do it. Not only does the water sparkle brightly, but the fluttering wings of a myriad of insects also light up in the sunshine. And that means to the trout that the table is set. They will be feeding on the insects that hatch in early spring.

Those uneducated in the ways of trout might think that the hordes of insects flying over land make their homes there. But in reality, most of the insects that trout eat were born in and are creatures of water. They are from the mud of and sandy soil at the bottom of the trout streams and trout lakes.

The warmth of the sun triggers hatches, and the trout respond in kind, feeding and cavorting about - much to the pleasure of anglers going after wild fish this time of year in the Black Hills.

During April, the last snows of the season almost certainly are yet to come in the Black Hills. After all, these are a northern part of the Rocky Mountains, so quite often it's still cold up high, with the nights commonly dipping down below freezing.

Fishermen concentrate on the lakes that have recently opened up. And anglers also hit particular stretches of trout streams in the Black Hills. The key on the streams is to fish water that's not too muddy from spring run-off.


Tops on that list are the stretches of stream below dams, and in the towns of Rapid City and Spearfish. To fish below dams, most anglers go to three primary locations. One of the best is the stretch of Rapid Creek below Pactola Dam - a catch-and-release area quite popular with flyfishermen.

It harbors some nice fish. There is easy access with parking lots there. And an angler can easily enjoy an entire day of fishing for trout in the stable water conditions below Pactola.

The quality of the water coming out of the bottom of Pactola Dam tends to be quite consistent. There is a lot of open-terrain fishing as the stream meanders through the stream bottomland below Pactola.

Even after it enters the trees below, the stream flows through the Black Hills National Forest for quite a way. Of course, all of it is available for public fishing.

Rapid City also has some good fishing during periods when areas of the Black Hills have turbid water. Rapid Creek flows into Canyon Lake at the west end of town. The sediment in the water drops out, so by the time the stream reemerges out of Canyon Lake, the water is relatively clear and perfect for fishing down through town.

Spearfish Creek in the city of Spearfish also has good, clear water - even during spring run-off. The stream courses through the city park and down through town, where quite a lot of fish habitat has been put in by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the city of Spearfish over the past 20 years.

Another fine spot that isn't fished very hard is Castle Creek, which flows out of Deerfield Lake in the high elevations of the Black Hills. Deerfield is one of the last lakes to warm up each year. It's quite high up in the Hills, and the stream down below has some nice holes for trout to live in during the winter.

The farther downstream an angler goes on Castle Creek, the fewer competing fishermen there are likely to be. But farther from Deerfield Dam, it will eventually turn murky during the spring run-off.

As water conditions clear in April and May, anglers will branch out more and fish all of the stream stretches in the Black Hills. All of the aforementioned streams are good - Rapid Creek, Spearfish Creek and Castle Creek.

The main species found in all three is the brown trout. These are wild and smart fish, so fishermen with experience tend to do best fishing for them.

In addition, anglers will be catching brook trout in the headwaters of these streams and in other small streams across the Black Hills this month. Brookies are very colorful in the Black Hills, and they are almost always eager to attack a fly.

The only drawback is that they run smaller in size due to the fact that they come from stream stretches with less water in them. When streams get up to a certain level of water, brown trout will out-compete brook trout and take over the stream.

All of the lakes offer good trout fishing just as soon as the ice goes out. The one exception is Sheridan Lake, which now has too many other species in it to be a good trout lake.

Early spring is an excellent time to hit the small lakes. Being smaller, they warm up first; the banks warm, insects hatch, and trout go on a feeding spree.

There generally aren't many trout fishermen out in early spring. So the small lakes are pleasant to fish before the tourists arrive. If you have a good pair of insulated waders you can even do some shoreline wading or crawl into a float tube.

The angler in a float tube will draw a few looks at this time of year, especially if he is floating around the edge of ice that might remain in some high lakes. With good waders, it's no problem withstanding the cold.

Just a few of the good small lakes include: Center, Legion and Sylvan lakes in Custer State Park; Roubaix Lake, Lakota Lake, Major Lake, Dalton Lake and others.

And of course, the big lakes will be good, too. Deerfield will be the last to open. Pactola and Stockade lakes have good trout populations and many fishermen can even catch trout from the shoreline at those lakes.

The main flies this time of year are nymphs. They will work even when there isn't a noticeable hatch going on. Popular nymphs include the Hare's Ear, Pheasant Tail, Zug Bug, Montana and Bitch Creek. These are generally fished just underneath the water surface, but if you aren't catching fish, go deeper.

The Montana and Bitch Creek are large nymphs that are especially effective for fishing deep. When streams are murky for instance, sometimes the brown trout can be caught by fishing a weighted nymph down deep in holes where the water slows.

Another effective technique is to fish downstream with a nymph. This is actually more easily done when the water is murky, because the trout can't easily see a fishermen standing upstream. And of course, there is the upstream nymph-fishing method, which excellent flyfishermen use with great effectiveness. It's more difficult to master this technique mainly because it is harder to determine when a trout bites the fly.

With downstream nymph fishing, the angler can feel the tug of the fish when it bites. The downstream method is really an old wet fly-fishing technique. And anglers can still use it, both with nymphs and with old-fashioned wet flies.

One of those old wet flies is the Black Hills Wonderbug. It's still sold in some places, though you won't see it much where local flies aren't sold. They are locally tied and have a wool body. The wool absorbs water and allows the fly to sink.

Wonderbugs come in all colors and can even be used as an attractor fly, which is supposed to lure aggressive trout. The colorful ones are good for rainbow trout in lakes, and brook trout in streams. The duller-colored Wonderbugs more closely resemble real nymphs, and will catch lots of brown trout.

All of these flies can be cast either with fly rods and fly lines or with spinning outfits. The fly rods are ideal for streams. If you are using spinning gear with a plastic water-filled bubble to cast a fly, it is best to stick to fishing the lakes. These plastic-bubble spinning rigs can cast a fly a great distance. Then it can be fished either on top of the water or just below the surface.

No matter what the outfit, the avid angler will have a very good time fishing for trout in April. The Black Hills weather patterns vary greatly, from balmy shirtsleeves days to chilling snowstorms.

You will be able to catch fish during all these types of conditions, and that's part of the fun of it. There are times during April when you will be up to your ankles in the icy waters of a Black Hills stream, snowflakes drifting down through the pine and spruce branches and alighting on the water, and trout will be dimpling the water surface all around.

It's one of the many things that make early spring trout fishing in the Black Hills so much fun.

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