It isn't often that you can catch big trout that are wild or wild trout that are big -- but at these Black Hills locations, you can.
By Dick Willis
Lying in wait in the waters flowing through parts of the Black Hills are big wild trout. Fishermen are almost certainly casting for and catching them on this very day.
Excellent fish, mostly wild browns, they inhabit some of the streams that flow through the mountains. The only catch (and it's a big one) is that some of the best fishing takes place in stream stretches where most or all of the trout must be released.
The stream sections with catch-and-release areas and special regulations regarding other issues are some of the best places to catch big wild trout in the Black Hills. So if a fisherman doesn't mind releasing most or all of his catch, the special-regulations areas are some of the best places to go.
And many anglers now prefer places where catch-and-release is the norm. It adds a certain aesthetic appeal for a lot of fishermen.
Mark Vickers is one of them. Secretary of the Black Hills Flyfishers, he's been fishing the Black Hills for decades.
Photo by Kurt Finlayson
Vickers fishes Rapid Creek a lot. Some of the best fishing is from Pactola downstream. At times in the past, the tailwaters below Pactola have produced some excellent trophy wild-trout fishing, but that has been less the case in the past couple of years. Still, there are still fish to be caught, and the Pactola Basin, where catch-and-release trout fishing is in effect down to Placerville Camp, remains a popular place to catch big wild trout.
"It is interesting," said Vickers. "Pactola Basin has some other problems. We had three straight years of 500-plus cubic feet per second releases. The fisheries did poorly, and it hasn't really rebounded."
After the area was designated a catch-and-release fishing area and trout habitat was put in Pactola Basin during the 1980s, there was an excellent response.
"The number of big fish exploded back then," Vickers recalled. "Back in '94 and '95 that was a pretty amazing fishery. The fishery isn't horrible now, but it is a shadow of what it was in '95. I think personally that those really high flows had an effect, but nobody really knows. A lot of vegetation was blown out. If we lost a lot of vegetation we probably lost a lot of bugs and insects."
Fishing regulations in the Black Hills have gradually been moving away from the philosophy that the main purpose of fish is for food. Rather, they are more geared toward trout as a resource that is most valuable when used for sport fishing rather than eating. And producing trophy wild trout is certainly one of the most important uses - at least for some fishermen.
One step in that direction is the Hills-wide change in the daily limit from the old eight-fish per day limit, to five fish per day, of which only one may be 14 inches or longer.
Of course, many anglers release all their fish even without any regulations. But the special-regulations areas that have more-restrictive limits such as catch-and-release-only are very popular. For instance, a lot of good trout fishing is to be had in Rapid Creek, which runs through most of Rapid City. However, after regulations were put in place requiring all trout 10 inches or longer to be released in the section of stream passing through Meadowbrook Golf Course, that became a hotspot for anglers.
"I think the special regulations have been successful," said Vickers. "I can't necessarily put a figure on it from the biological standpoint, but in the Pactola Basin, when the catch-and-release was put in, it exploded.
"As far as the social aspect, it has been important, too. There are a lot of people who want that kind of opportunity. Those areas with the tightest regulations in the hills are also the most heavily fished. I don't think 10 years ago people would have believed that, but that is what has happened."
The Black Hills Flyfishers were early proponents of special trout regulations. And club members pushed the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks to experiment with new rules. Over the years, the more restrictive fishing has become less controversial as more and more anglers want as good a fishery as possible. They especially want large wild trout in the Black Hills.
"The special regulations are popular with flyfishermen - really from two standpoints," Vickers noted. "From the quality of the fishery - when you remove the angling mortality, you have the possibility of growing better trout - and socially - you have an opportunity of a different and, from my view, better angling experience. There are different opportunities for different types of fishing."
The Black Hills is most noted for an abundance of smaller fish. Eight-inch wild trout are extremely common, and on a good spring day, an angler can catch dozens. Most people like the fast action of fishing for those, but it's the larger wild trout that draw lots of interest.
Another area to catch them in lies above Pactola. There is a beautiful walk along the Deerfield Trail, which snakes up along Rapid Creek above Pactola.
Some of those holes contain nice trout. A few are fish that swim up from the lake, but others are big trout that are stocked there, says Vickers. "I personally would rather catch an 11-inch trout than one of the monster hatchery fish," he asserted. But the large hatchery fish do appeal to some fishermen, and that's one of the few stream stretches where they are planted.
For the most part, all the healthy sections of Rapid Creek and other Black Hills streams are managed for wild fish. There is no hatchery stocking in them.
"What most people don't realize is that, with stream fishing, they are all wild," remarked Scott Zieske, who has been fishing Black Hills waters for 27 years. "You are hard-pressed to find any stocked trout except for Spring Creek, or marginal water. Most of the fish, large or small, are wild."
Zieske defines large trout as those 12 inches and longer in the Black Hills. The brown trout in the streams take on a brilliant color when they're that size.
"That is real outstanding trout fishing anywhere in the West," said Zieske. "We could have more of that if we had more catch-and-release. But we don't have a lot of regulations that encourage releasing large fish."
Zieske used to fish the special-regulations area in Spearfish Canyon. It offered excellent wil
d rainbow trout fishing, but was destroyed by high water flooding a few years ago and has never been repaired. Zieske thinks it should be.
Farther downstream, in the city of Spearfish, there's lots of good water for big trout. "Rapid Creek is more of a freestone creek, and a lot less dependent on springs, except for Cleghorn," says Zieske. "In Spearfish Creek you don't get the wild swings in volume. Spearfish can be an excellent place for big trout. You need deep pools, the glides."
Those things are found in Spearfish Creek. The habitat, plus special regulations that protect wild trout, are what produces them. Of the two, the special regulations are the quickest and cheapest to put in place.
"The only thing that encourages big fish is not to kill them," said Zieske "I go out when the brown trout are spawning and watch them. It is real interesting to see how big they are.
"As the fishing pressure increases they will lay low. They are more difficult to catch. Spring and fall are best - that is my opinion. But I definitely don't encourage people to cast over spawning fish. I think that is unethical as well as detrimental to the fish and what they are doing. Plus you are damaging the redds and the eggs if you are walking in on top of them."
Though technically not wild, some of the rainbow trout in Black Hills lakes such as Deerfield and Pactola can almost be considered wild. Some are stocked as minnows, and grow up in the lake. By the time they are 10 or 12 inches long, they have all the characteristics of a wild, hard-fighting fish. They're fun to catch.
Zieske believes that the population of large trout has plunged recently owing to drought and the resulting low water. "It is all a factor of how much water there is and how much holding area there is," he said. "The streams are very productive in the Hills as far as invertebrates. It is a matter of water and how much cover there is. When we have the water flows like right now, it is detrimental to large wild trout."
Still, there are big trout on the feed this spring. Rapid Creek and Spearfish Creek remain the two most popular and productive stream fisheries in the Black Hills. The time of year for some of the best trophy trout fishing is right now.
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