Hill City, S.D. — The mountain stream dipped under a bridge and emerged in a riffle that seemed like a perfect spot to cast a floating fly.
Just a few casts later a 16-inch brown trout struck, struggled and came to the net. “Almost too easy,” I thought on my first day of fly fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Then, for the rest of that day, I didn’t catch another fish.
It was an early lesson in Black Hills trout fishing, which over time I discovered to be excellent. Even on days when fish don’t bite, you’ll be rambling along streams with some of most breathtaking scenery in the world.
Lots of Midwestern fly anglers, including my wife, Sheila, and I, like to fish in the West. Usually the destinations are legendary rivers in Wyoming, Montana or Idaho. For years, driving west on Interstate 90, we passed the exits for the Black Hills.
That changed for us a couple of years ago when friends began talking up Black Hills fishing. We heard that trout fishing on the region’s more than 700 miles of streams had improved in recent years.
Two fishing trips there confirmed the stories. We caught nice-sized rainbow and brown trout, and even a few brookies.
Jake Davis, a Duluth native and fly fisherman who now is South Dakota’s area fisheries manager for the Black Hills, says the improvement is largely related to water levels.
“We have been fortunate that the last several years have been wet years, so we haven’t run into any of the issues we had in the mid-2000s when we were going through drought periods and we saw reductions in number and size of fish,” Davis said. “With these wet years we have had steady reproduction, and the fishery in the Black Hills is doing very well.”
The Black Hills region, with its cool mountain waters, seems like a natural place to find trout. Yet trout aren’t native to the area. They were planted in the 1880s. The historic hatchery that played a key role in the transformation still exists in Spearfish, S.D.
The original approach — stocking catchable trout for put-and-take fishing — has evolved over the decades. It still happens on some streams, including one of our favorites, Spring Creek below Sheridan Lake.
Over time, South Dakota, like most western states, has shifted its management strategy to natural, in-stream reproduction, which means most of the brown, rainbow or brook trout are wild.
For Twin Cities anglers who want some western fishing, one advantage of the Black Hills over Yellowstone National Park, for example, is that the 600-mile drive can be done in a long day. It took us just under 10 hours with stops. For those who don’t like long drives, there are flights to Rapid City, S.D., the eastern gateway to the Black Hills.
Landscape of waterways
Rapid Creek is the largest and most famous stream in the Black Hills. It flows into and out of Pactola Reservoir, which creates a lush tailwater fishery extending into Rapid City. It is the home of large browns and rainbows, although they can be frustratingly difficult to catch. On other days, they gulp down your flies.
The creek also is home to the invasive diatom Didymosphenia geminata or didymo (pronounced did-ee-moe), which showed up in 2002. When it blooms, didymo carpets the stream bottom with slimy, slippery growth that anglers have nicknamed “rock snot.”
In response, South Dakota banned felt-sole wading boots, which are believed to spread the invader. So far, experts say, it has been found in only one other stream in the Black Hills. Research suggests that stream conditions, especially low phosphorus levels (usually a good thing), play a role in the blooms that happen in the summer.
Dan James, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has researched didymo and its effects on fish, said the initial alarm over the problem has evolved into a better understanding of the consequences. It has changed but not killed the fishing.
“It is pretty well known that it will alter the bug invertebrate community,” said James, who also is a fly fisherman. His studies found that Rapid Creek trout consumed higher numbers of midge larvae and fewer mayflies and caddis flies.
Two other tailwater trout streams flow through the Black Hills: Castle Creek and Spring Creek. Both offer angling in gorgeous valleys, in some places topped by granite cliffs. On Castle Creek, we caught fat brook trout in the cool waters near the dam, and rainbows downstream.
Spring Creek, just west of Rapid City, is a popular stream with a walking path favored by anglers and hikers. It will be a better fishery when federal officials can figure out a way to release water from the cool depths of the reservoir, like other good trout tailwaters, instead of draining water off the warm lake surface.
Despite the less-than-optimal stream temperature, we caught large rainbows that had grown fat on the rich aquatic insect life in Spring Creek. We cast the tiniest flies in our fly boxes.
Many other small streams thread their way though the Black Hills, offering remote fishing for spooky trout. Isolated ponds, lakes and small impoundments also hold trout and can be fished from shore or in float tubes.
Black Hills noise pollution
Spearfish Creek in the northern Black Hills offers an entirely different experience. The rocky stream gushes rapidly though its famous canyon. This is fast-water fishing for large rainbows, and with a huge downside — noise pollution.
Motorcyclists are drawn to Spearfish and its canyon, and not just during the annual Sturgis rally. Some bikes have less than adequate mufflers, making them annoyingly loud. If you seek quiet fishing you won’t find it on this stream, or on other waters along paved roads in the Black Hills. Fish streams off gravel roads to escape the motors.
With tourist attractions like Mount Rushmore, the region is loaded with lodging places and campgrounds, and they get crowded in the summer. A fall or spring fishing trip can avoid some of the crowds, but weather becomes a roll of the dice.
St. Paul writer Steve Kinsella, while researching his useful guidebook “Trout Fishing in the Black Hills,” spent weeks camping and fishing there during April and May. “At that time of year, there are not many tourists,” he said. But one morning, he recalled, he woke up to a sagging tent and a foot of snow.
The guidebook, published in 2000, is out of print. Kinsella, who grew up in South Dakota and is a past editor of “Trout” magazine, said he intends to write an update.
Visitors also can stop by the Dakota Angler & Outfitter, a fly shop in Rapid City, for gear, guides, flies and tips. The shop also has a helpful website.
David Shaffer is a former staff writer for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org