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Spring Fling Trout

Spring Fling Trout

This is the month when trout fishing really opens up in the Black Hills -- and these are the waters you should be fishing now.

By Dick Willis

It wasn't the Adams dry fly that I was watching float gently down on the rippling Black Hills trout stream in early April. It was the snow.

It could have been a brilliant day of sun and warm temperatures. But instead, in the mountains in April, winter has far from given up its reign. Trout fishermen must certainly be ready for a dose of wind and ice at this time of year.

Wild trout are, after all, coldwater fish. They thrive in the Black Hills where the spring waters come pouring out of the brooks and rivulets.

The variety of the winter actually makes the fishing more interesting. The trout streams can have quite good fishing in late winter and early spring. April is a good time to wet a line for trout in the Black Hills.

I cast out into the edge of the current in Rapid Creek. The trout were feeding. Bumps and ripples near the water surface indicated they were going after nymphs of some kind.

The snowfall and approaching storm may actually have been stimulating feeding activity. Like mammals, fish take on an urge to feed when they sense a storm approaching.


Photo by Gordon Whittington

Whatever the reason, the trout were even taking my dry fly, which is more unusual at this early stage of the fishing season. Usually they take a nymph more readily.

Whenever wild brown trout will bite on dry flies, I prefer to use them. You can watch the fish come up sometimes, and you can see them take the fly almost all the time. You can watch the fish make its mistake.

The brown that took my fly was about 8 inches in length. That's the average size of wild brown trout in the Black Hills, if you are on one of the bigger streams such as Rapid Creek or Spearfish Creek. Fish that size are fun to catch, and they recover rapidly from the little tussle with a fisherman.

The barbless hook helps a lot, too. It's much quicker and easier to release the fish caught on barbless hooks. The only injury to the trout is a small pinprick in the lip.

With a barbed hook, the damage can be much greater, depending on where the fish is hooked. If it is near the soft tissue around the cartilage of the mouth, it's easy to hurt the fish while playing it and then releasing it.

So that's why a barbless hook is best. That, and the fact that a barbless hook also won't damage a wool sweater when you pull it out after having snagged yourself.

On this particular stretch of Rapid Creek, above Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills, I didn't see anyone else fishing on that day. Frankly, it would have been unusual if I had.

It's fairly remote, and with the snow falling, most people won't venture out to the trout stream.

But cold spring weather and snowfall actually create good conditions for fishing. And it's not as cold on the fisherman as one might think. You can actually stay warmer by being near the water.

The Black Hills has a good trout fishery. Most of the fish that anglers catch are brown trout. They are the dominant trout in the bigger stretches of streams there.

There are some brook trout, and a few rainbow trout in a few locations, but the browns dominate the streams. They are a tough and aggressive fish. Biologists say they will actually run the smaller brook trout and less aggressive rainbows out of the good areas of a stream.

Stocking isn't necessary in most Black Hills streams, and the practice can actually be counter-productive in good streams. The newly added fish upset the social structure of the stream. The only places for the newly added trout to go are to areas where wild trout already exist, or to areas where their chances for survival are marginal.

Probably the wild fish are tougher and smarter, and possibly they are hard on the stocked newcomers. Plus, the stocked trout dilute the pure strain of wild fish in the stream.

That's why many trout anglers and biologists steer away from putting hatchery fish in good waters that have healthy trout reproduction, and thus maintain their own populations.

In Rapid Creek above Pactola, the only possibility of a hatchery trout being caught would be if one swam upstream from Pactola.

The streams feeding major Black Hills lakes are sometimes not very good fishing during April. Sometimes the runoff is heavy enough to discolor the water. Then the trout fishing gets more difficult.

Anglers will use nymphs or wet flies entirely if there is runoff. And they will often weight the flies so they sink down in the fast, rising water.

When it's colder, as it was on this snowy day, there is less snowmelt and the water levels are more stable. Thus, the fishing can be done in much clearer water.

When the turbid water arrives each spring, most fishermen will go to the stretches below dams. Good trout-fishing locations include Rapid Creek below Pactola, Castle Creek below Deerfield, and Spring Creek below Sheridan Lake Dam.

The water that comes out of the lakes is not muddy, so for quite a ways downstream the fishing can be done in relatively clear water.

Stream water originating from lakes like Pactola, Deerfield and Sheridan also maintains a fairly consistent temperature. This makes the fishing more stable and more predictable during the spring runoff.

Fishermen going after trout in the stream below the dams often fish the holes this time of year. Trout like to stay in the deeper areas much of the winter. In fact, the depth of holes in Black Hills streams often determines the size and number of trout in the particular stream.

Winter is one of the hard times for fish, of course. And it is the limiting factor for fish in some streams. With plenty of deep holes, they can more easily survive the hard Black Hills winters.

For fishermen, the holes are good places to start fishing. Two of the best spots are where the faster water enters a hole, and where it leaves.

Anglers use the Hare's Ear, Zug Bug, Pheasant Tail, Muskrat and other nymphs to catch brown trout. When the water is murky, some of the larger nymphs also work well. The Bitch Creek and Montana nymphs are good for dredging trout form the deep holes during periods when the water is murky.

When the runoff starts during spring, the bigger nymphs seem to be easier for trout to see in the holes. Many fishermen use extra lead to weight the nymphs. That way the nymph sinks down toward the bottom of the stream.

There are several effective ways to weight your flies. You can wrap lead wire around part of the hook while tying the fly. Or, in a pinch, you can put lead around the end of the leader where the tippet ties on. Even tiny split shot will work.

It's best to use as little weight as possible. It's harder to cast a heavy fly with a fly line. And it's harder to hook fish.

As the water warms and the insect life begins to become more active, the trout feeding picks up. You normally can see fish feeding if the trout are going after flies on the surface.

That's when dry-fly fishing becomes the best. Popular patterns for fishing the Black Hills include the Humpy, Adams, and any pattern that imitates the Blue Winged Olive.

Both dry flies and nymphs are best fished with as light an outfit as possible. The streams in the Black Hills are relatively small, and thus the flies used to fish them are small, especially when compared with those used on some of the larger rivers in Montana and Wyoming.

A 3-weight fly fishing outfit works very well on our streams. No one I've ever met uses anything larger than a 5-weight.

Spinning outfits can be used with great success to catch trout on Black Hills lakes. But in streams, fly rods are vastly superior, mainly because with them you can give a much more natural presentation of your artificial offering.

Besides brown trout, Black Hills fishermen can also expect to catch a few rainbow trout in our streams. And there are lots of brook trout in headwater streams.

The rainbows are found primarily in a small stretch of Spearfish Creek in Spearfish Canyon. The catch-and-release area of Spearfish Canyon has the wild rainbow population. It's easily assessable from the road, which runs clear through the canyon.

The rainbow fishery is very limited in the streams. A few rainbows can occasionally be picked up below lakes where they are stocked. But that must be considered an unusual catch.

Brook trout are very widespread. You will very seldom catch a brookie where brown trout are dominant in the big streams. However, in the small streams and in the headwaters, the diminutive brookies seem to be everywhere.

In fact, even in the tiniest streams that are barely running, you will find brook trout. The fish may be only a couple of inches long, but they will survive and even thrive in any Black Hills stream as long as it has permanent flowing water the entire year.

As the size of the stream grows, so does the length of the brook trout. In some of the best brook trout streams, such as Box Elder Creek and the upper forks of Spearfish Creek, you'll pick up some 8-inchers.

The brookies are very colorful. And they seem to have a preference for very colorful flies. You can catch them on some of the flashiest patterns in your fly box.

A brook trout fishing trip can turn into a hiking and exploring expedition. Few people fish the headwaters of streams. The size of the fish in the headwaters is small compared to the bigger stretches down below.

It's often harder to cast in the smaller streams. Unless they flow through a meadow, these streams are often lined with willows or ponderosa pines. In the higher elevations of the headwaters, the shorelines are just as likely to be thickly covered with Black Hills spruce.

And when you are casting into a stream that is only a foot or two wide, there isn't much room to miss. You can often dabble your fly by poking along the stream's bank and dropping it into any likely looking spot you pass. Actually, you could use a cane pole to dangle a fly in the small streams if you wanted to. And you'd probably be rewarded with some fun catches!

Small-stream fishing can become a stalk. The fisherman must get quite close to the fish in order to cast to it in the heavy vegetation. And that takes some sneaky walking, or even crawling in some cases.

The exploration comes as the fisherman makes a hike up the stream. You'll be going through the forest and up canyons that not many people go into. It's part of the fun of brook trout fishing in the headwaters. Those canyons are quite beautiful in April, or at any time of year.

In April, it very well might still be winter up in the higher elevations of the Black Hills. But fishermen can catch trout just as soon as there is open water. Trout are coldwater fish. They feed quite actively all year long, even when the water is frigid.

If you go on some of our back roads during April, mud can be a problem in some places. There are a few places in the Black Hills where a vehicle can get stuck as the snow melts and the ground thaws.

The season progresses most rapidly at the lower elevations. As Rapid Creek and Spearfish Creek pour out of the edge of the Black Hills, fishermen find good spring trout fishing even before April.

Both streams have good trout habitat put in by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. There are undercut banks, alternating pools and riffles, and boulders placed in the streams to provide trout habitat.

Where Rapid Creek comes out of Canyon Lake Dam in Rapid City, fisherman can find good fishing for miles downstream. Even during spring runoff, the water tends to be clear below Canyon Lake.

Quite often a smaller-sized flies work better in Rapid Creek in Rapid City. There are a lot of midges growing in the water there, and since the stream is fished hard, the trout tend to be particular for both the fly they want, and the presentation.

Spearfish Creek through the city of Spearfish is also a good place to go during spring when other streams are muddy. The SDDGFP also has put good habitat into Spearfish Creek as it flows through Spearfish.

Biologists do electroshocking studies every year to find out how the trout are doing. Looking at the trout that come up, the average size runs larger in the streams in Spearfish and Rapid City than in most other areas of the Black Hills.

Unfortunately, good stretches of trout water have been lost to developers over the years. Work in the last two decades has gone toward trying to replace some of that lost habitat. And it has been successful, though nothing can equal those original huge holes that held giant trout.

Still, fishermen find good trout fishing there, and in the rest of the Black Hills. The excellent mountain scenery and variety of conditions make for an exciting Black Hills expedition. And that is where fishermen will be looking for their early-spring trout fishing.

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