September 30, 2010
You want trout? We know where to catch them now that the heat is on.
By Dick Willis
There was a time not too many decades ago when the Black Hills fisherman traveled to trout paradise on a train.
He prepared for an entire day of trout fishing by packing a lunch, stashing a full selection of flies, and picking up the fly rod for a trip up into the Black Hills.
The fisherman would usually choose a nice summer morning before the heat descended on the Plains. And then the ritual began of boarding the train - a narrow-gauge railroad line that coursed up through Rapid Creek Canyon and into the heart of the Black Hills. You can still see the old bridge pilings of that railroad line as you cast into Rapid Creek. Some of them make breakwater spots where you can put your fly in front of a wild brown trout.
Of course, the train is long gone. But the fish remain. And fishermen of the current era take to the water in a similar manner.
When the weather turns hot in July, the fishermen head for the higher elevations of the Black Hills. Down below in Rapid City or in Spearfish the sun scorches all the inhabitants.
Photo by Gordon Whittington
But on the upper reaches of Rapid Creek and Spearfish Creek and the assortment of other Black Hills flowing waters and lakes, the hot summer is barely noticed.
A jump in elevation of a couple of thousand feet makes a big difference in temperature. It's why trout can live in the Black Hills, but have a hard time of it once the streams come out of these mountains and course across the Plains.
In the Missouri River to the east, the trout do well because they can sink down to the cool depths of the reservoir. Or they can frolic in the cool waters that shoot out of the dams from the bottoms of Oahe and Sakakawea.
In the Black Hills the elevation rises several thousand feet to more than a mile above sea level where the headwaters of some streams begin.
In these places, fishermen will find brook trout. They're all wild, and they thrive in the smallest of brooks.
You can catch them on just about any fly. Brookies are always hungry, it seems. They have to eat a lot of food, and do it fast, during the hottest days of the summer. That's when the biggest food supply of insects is hatched in streams.
Come winter when the streams ice over, the fish are more sluggish. And more importantly, the amount of food available is less. So the brook trout feed while they have their best chance - during summer.
To catch these fish you'll have to do as much stalking as you do fishing. The trout can see well in the shallow streams. Many times the fisherman is on hands and knees sneaking up to a good hole.
One of the best places to go after them is a good beaver pond. Fish can grow larger in the ponds because they have more water and more food.
Beavers are fairly abundant in the Black Hills. These flat-tailed mammals move about in their continual search for good food supplies located near water.
In some areas they don't build dams. They don't need to because the water is deep enough for their liking. In these cases they often tunnel their dens into the sides of riverbanks.
But in the streams of the Black Hills they normally choose to build dams. That backs up water, and the beavers can store their winter food supply underwater in the ponds. They can build their lodges out in the pond.
They're quite active, cutting and hauling trees about during their nighttime sprees. The favored tree for food is the aspen and birch, both fairly common species in the Black Hills where they haven't been crowded out by ponderosa pines.
For fishermen, the dams make nice open places to fish. The catch is that the trout are usually quite wary while in the ponds.
Typically, Black Hills beaver ponds are very calm and quiet. They're tucked away in the mountains and are usually protected from the wind.
This makes for a scenic setting. It's something that could be in a painting - and in fact, it sometimes is.
But despite the beauty of the scene, the idyllic setting creates some rather difficult fishing conditions. Truly wary trout are difficult or next to impossible to catch from a glass-still beaver pond. Even if you manage to sneak up on them, a fly line hitting he water will spook the fish.
That's why it's a good idea to use the lightest fly line possible - No. 2 or No. 3 lines are best. And of course, you'll need to sneak up on the fish.
This is usually best done from below the dam. That way you can keep the structure between you and the fish. You can peek over the dam and carefully cast your fly.
When fishing Black Hills beaver ponds, it's best to try to catch the fish that's closest to you first. Certainly, if a fly line lands on top of a fish it will spook. And then the other fish in the beaver pond are likely to pick up on the fright and be much harder to entice with an offering.
Beaver pond fishing is a favorite of fishermen who like to use dry flies. The peak of summer is also the high time for insect activity. That's when trout will actively look for insects on the water surface.
It's really quite a lot of fun catching these beaver pond trout on a dry fly. The water is so clear and often so smooth that you see the trout lurking just under the surface. You can cast out and, if you are lucky and the conditions are right, watch the trout come up and take your fly.
Normally, you can't do that too much because after a few fish, the others become "educated" and don't bite. However, for a fish or two, the fishing is quite exciting.
You can use a small barbless dry fly and quickly unhook the fish, turning it loose virtually unharmed. The less thrashing around you and the trout do while landing and releasing, the better.
Not only is the use of a barbless hook easier on the trout, but it also enables you to create less commotion while releasing it and, ultimately, to catch more fish.
About any of the standard dry flies will work on brook trout. They're generally not too picky. In the Black Hills, the Adams and Blue-Winged Olive are popul
During grasshopper season, the grasshopper patterns work great, as might be expected. And fishing them is fun. You can plop a grasshopper down a lot more sloppily and harder on the water than you can some of the more delicate dry flies. The trout probably expects a grasshopper to jump into the water rather crudely, anyway.
Trout tend to attack the hopper a little more aggressively than when going after a tiny dry fly.
There usually isn't just one single beaver pond to fish. It's likely there's a string of them stretched out up and down a stream bottom. Beavers are industrious animals.
It's a good thing for trout fishermen that lots of these beaver dams exist. That way, after you spook the fish in one, you can move on to fish the next one.
The best beaver dams for holding trout and are usually the ones that are still active, but which the beaver is about to abandon. These are still in good shape with lots of deep water, and they've been around long enough to attract lots of trout.
The newer dams tend to be a little murkier where the beavers have stirred up the mud. The older dams silt in and get shallow. That kind doesn't hold many trout.
As you hunt for beaver dams, you'll want to go mostly to the smaller streams. That's where the beavers like it. There's lots of food, and the streams are small enough for the animals to work with them.
The big, main stretches of Rapid Creek or Spearfish Creek are too big for beavers to have any success at dam building. The water flow is too great, and high water washes away all their work.
Another thing beavers look for is a good food supply. In the Midwest in farm country, they'll actually eat corn and cut cornstalks.
Of course, not many farmers would try to grow corn in the Black Hills. Aspen and birch are the favored foods for beavers. Once in awhile you will see where a beaver has been gnawing on a ponderosa pine. It takes a hungry - or dumb - beaver, indeed, to stick his teeth into the resinous trunk of that pine.
Perhaps the greatest thing about fishing beaver ponds in the Black Hills is the beauty of the setting. Beaver ponds are always located on stream bottoms, of course. The riparian habitat is lush with life. You'll be able to see some of it.
After you've spooked the trout in a beaver pond, it's fun to go up and sit above it on the bank. After five or 10 minutes the trout will start feeding again. Life in the beaver pond will get back to normal, and you can take it all in.
The trout will be dimpling the water as they eat terrestrial insects that make the fatal mistake of jumping or falling in. And they devour nymphs that come up from the rich muck on the bottom of the beaver pond.
This attracts other creatures as well. If you're really lucky, you may see an osprey or a bald eagle, as they sometimes hang around Black Hills beaver ponds. The birds are big fish eaters.
And of course, the regular inhabitants of the Black Hills show up, especially at dawn and dusk. Deer, elk, and raccoons make their way to the water; on rare occasions you may even see minks. All of which makes these beaver ponds great places to fish and enjoy a summer day.
As you head a little lower in the watershed you'll get to more water and bigger streams. That's where the lair of the brown trout begins. These fish are more aggressive than brookies. Perhaps they eat a fair numbers of small brook trout.
For whatever reason, the two fish don't tend to be equally abundant in any one segment of a Black Hills stream. Brown trout flourish wherever the habitat is good enough; brook trout live in the smaller places where they don't have to compete with the browns.
In the Black Hills, the vast majority of stream brown trout will be wild fish. They possess excellent fighting qualities. Their wild color shows vibrantly. And they are smart. They're often considered the most wary and difficult to catch of trout.
So an angler can't just blunder in and catch brown trout in a stream. You'll have to know something of what you are doing, and make a good presentation.
A fly that drags unnaturally may fool a crappie, but no respectably intelligent wild brown trout would touch it.
But then, the challenge is one of the reasons these fish are so popular with experienced anglers.
Brown trout are perhaps a little more particular and less hungry during the heat of summer. Sometimes in midafternoon they just aren't interested in eating or in chasing anything. The fishing is usually better during morning and evening.
Then you can watch them feeding. Where they are fished hard, such as in Rapid Creek, inside Rapid City, they can be quite particular, especially regarding the size of the fly.
They feed a lot on small midges. If you are offering a regular-sized No. 10 fly that will catch trout in many other parts of the country and in the West, you can have a hard time catching trout in some of our hardest-fished waters here.
Lots of times fishermen will be casting like mad as feeding fish rise all around, and they'll catch absolutely nothing. When that happens, it's usually because the fly being offered is too big. These Black Hills browns can be quite discriminating.
Moving on to the small lakes, the morning and evening fishing times become even more crucial. These waters are at their warmest at this time of year. Very early morning fishing can be outstanding.
Not many people get up early enough to enjoy what is often the absolute best fishing of the day - before the sun rises. Those who do realize that's when the avid old-time anglers hit the lakes.
That special time between that first hint of light and the first direct rays of the sun is outstanding for catching trout in the Black Hills, and probably elsewhere in the West.
Over on the Missouri River, there is a lot more water and less air temperature fluctuation at night. So mid-morning is often a good time to fish, and in the evening as well.
The big draw of fishing for trout in Lake Oahe and in the tailrace down below is the size of the fish. There are lots of trophy-sized fish there. They're big and fat, so it's nothing to catch one of a couple of pounds; even 10-pounders are not unusual. They're like big hogs, they're so fat.
Twenty years ago, when a flyfisherman went to the Missouri River, people looked at that person as one would look at a lunatic. But not anymore.
You'll see lots of fly rods, especially below Oahe Dam in the marina area and in the tailrace. Trout fis
hermen certainly are less common than are walleye anglers, but seeing a trout fisherman with a fly rod is no longer an absurdly bizarre sight.
Fishermen use lots of big streamers there. Big, brash silver and chartreuse things seem to work best. They undoubtedly imitate the smelt and other baitfish that live in the tailrace.
It takes a pretty big rod to catch trout effectively over on the Missouri. The flies you cast are larger, and the wind sometimes kicks up to gale proportions.
Nearly all fishermen use weight-forward fly lines here. A sinking line comes in handy at times, too. Whereas in the Black Hills, a double tapered line is perfect for most stream fishing.
Belly boat fishing has grown in popularity in the side water and still areas of the Missouri River between Oahe Dam and Pierre. You can latch onto one of the huge trout, and then let it pull you around for a while.
And if it's really hot, being in a belly boat in the cool water is Nature's air-conditioning. In fact, you'll need waders - probably insulated ones, so you don't get too cold.
It's all part of the fun of fishing for trout in South Dakota during the heat of summer. The frigid, whispering winds of the North will be descending soon enough. It's best to enjoy the hot-weather trout fishing while it lasts.
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