Fly fishing for trout in South Dakota
Though the Black Hills are better known for Mount Rushmore and other sightseeing spots, the area is home to some beautiful streams and good numbers of trout.
Few anglers know that South Dakota’s Black Hills have great trout fishing in streams that flow through towering granite gorges, in scenic lakes, and in small creeks that a toddler could throw a rock across. To most visitors, the Black Hills region is best known for that presidential monument Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, and herds of buffalo. For many anglers, it’s just a sightseeing stop on the way to more popular fishing destinations like Utah’s Green River or Montana’s Yellowstone.
That’s too bad, because the Black Hills have fish–monstrous, five- and six-pound rainbows that can make a reel sing, frisky brook trout that jump on a fly like a bobcat on a whitetail, and browns that go deep and make you work to bring them home. Whether they come from a small gorge stream or a larger catch-and-release water, the fish are worth seeing.
Experienced Black Hills fly fishers have a saying they pass on to newcomers: “If there’s water in it, it’s got fish.” Luckily, it’s true.
GOLD RUSH TROUT
Rainbow and brown trout first appeared in the Black Hills area in the 1880s when Colorado gold miners came looking for their fortunes after hearing of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s tales of the area’s wealth. There are no records detailing where the first fish were stocked, but many locals believe the miners randomly distributed fish in several area streams. The trout reproduced and slowly migrated to other waters.
In 1918, the first Black Hills trout hatchery was built in Rapid City, but it burned down just a year later. In 1927, the Cleghorn Springs hatchery was built just outside the city on the banks of Rapid Creek, and the hatchery still produces most of the area’s stocked trout (mostly browns and rainbows). Another hatchery near Spearfish supplies trout for the northern Black Hills.
Though the hatcheries today stock 450,000 brown, rainbow, and brook trout in Black Hills streams and lakes each year, most of Black Hills streams also hold healthy populations of wild browns, brookies, and rainbows.
South Dakota’s trout fishing is open year-round and, because of the “Banana Belt” weather that warms the Hills with 50- and 60-degree F. temperatures in December and January, it’s rarely too cold to fish. Some streams freeze over–especially in the higher elevations–and all the lakes freeze, but streams like Rapid and Spring creeks have sections of open, fishablewater all winter. Fish become sluggish and eat less in the winter, but by going deep with small nymphs and midge pupae (#18-#20), you can catch fish in winter conditions.
Water levels play a big role in the quality of Black Hills fishing. Fortunately, most Black Hills streams have enough water throughout the year to hold fish, but during summers of extremely dry years, some nearly dry up, forcing the trout to find refuge in deeper pools. The area hasn’t had a drought for a long time, though, and the fishing in the Black Hills is the best it has been in 40 years.
Most of the creeks in the Black Hills are small, but “big” waters that widen to 25 or 30 feet do exist. Rapid, Spring, Boxelder, and Spearfish creeks are considered big waters, though you can wade them with hip boots and reach their best riffles and pools without getting wet. Rapid and Spring creeks, both close to Rapid City (the largest city in the Black Hills), are the most popular streams in the area because they have large numbers of trout, good access, and offer year-round fishing.
Cindy Card Photo Rapid Creek, one of the area’s larger streams, has good access and a great summer/fall Trico hatch.
Rapid Creek starts deep in the Black Hills and flows into Pactola Reservoir. The fishing is respectable above the reservoir, but it’s better in the catch-and-release area below. Above the reservoir, runoff from long-gone gold and other mineral mines has killed much of the insect life and reduced fish numbers. This upper stretch is beautiful, though, as it runs through one of the prettiest valleys in the Hills–100-foot-high granite walls border one side of the stream, pine-covered ridges line the other. From Silver City, a hiking trail follows Rapid Creek through the valley and provides good access for anglers.
For several miles below the Pactola Reservoir dam, catch-and-release regulations rule for both stocked and wild rainbows and browns. This section, with its football-size rocks, long, flat runs, and deep pools, provides good holding water for trout and a nice mix of nymphing and dry-fly water for anglers.
A hiking trail also follows this section of Rapid Creek and provides ample access to the water from the dam downstream for six miles. The local fly-fishing club, the Black Hills Flyfishers, has done a major stream improvement project including willow planting, bank stabilization, and boulder placement. The state stocks fewer fish in this section than in other regulated waters, but the fish are larger, averaging almost a foot long with many in the 15- to 16-inch range and a few wild browns and rainbows in the 20-inch range. These provide the possibility of catching a Black Hills trophy trout on either nymphs or drys.
Fly fishing in Rapid Creek can be tough during early spring’s high water, and I don’t advise wading when the water is high. It’s best to cast from the bank with a weighted nymph or split-shot on your leader to get your fly to the bottom. When May arrives and the water slows, wading is much safer and the dry-fly fishing begins. Rapid Creek and most of the area’s streams don’t have prolific hatches, but you can count on good midge hatches all year; Baetis and small black stones in the winter; black caddis and March Browns in the spring; yellow stones, Tricos, and tan and olive caddis in the summer; and Tricos in the fall. The fall Trico hatch is the closest thing the Black Hills has to a blizzard hatch. Trout gorge themselves on the Trico spinners as they fall from their mating clouds to the water.
Even as Rapid Creek flows out of the valley, the fishing remains good. Highway 44, also called Rimrock Highway, runs along the creek, providing good access. Though houses line much of the stream’s banks, highway pullouts and crossroads provide ample parking and access. If you do need to cross private land to get to the water, please be courteous and ask the landowner’s permission.
At Rapid City, Rapid Creek is dammed to create Canyon Lake, which also holds rainbows and browns. Below Canyon Lake, the creek continues its run through the city, through a municipal golf course and right through downtown and the county fairgrounds. In the city, the creek is open to the public, easy to access, and full of stocked and wild browns and rainbows up to 20 inches, though most are in the 10- to 15-inch range. After 5 P.M. on summer evenings, it’s common to see office workers exchanging suits for waders just a minute’s drive from downtown banks and office buildings.
For Rapid Creek and other Black Hills streams, you can’t go wrong with a fly box full of Blue-winged Olives and other Baetis imitations, little yellow and golden stoneflies, Tricos, Elk-hair Caddis, Hare’s-ear nymphs, Pheasant-tail nymphs, and other traditional patterns.
Spring Creek. If Rapid Creek is the Black Hills’ urban trout stream, Spring Creek is its country cousin. No more than 40 minutes from Rapid City, Spring Creek’s more solitary fishing is easily accessible by Route 228, also called Sheridan Lake Road, until the creek runs into Sheridan Lake. Almost anywhere you stop, the fishing is great for rainbows and browns ranging from 10 to 20 inches.
Cindy Card Photo Spring Creek bumps against granite walls, creating deep pools and good bolding water.
Spring Creek’s water doesn’t get as high as Rapid Creek, so it can be fished year-round. Pools and riffles every few hundred feet hold large fish at nearly every bend. The section just below the lake is designated as a trophy trout water (you can only keep one trout larger than 15 inches; any tackle can be used) and there are plenty of fish in the 15-inch range and some that push 20 inches.
Spring Creek also has a great fall Trico hatch. The morning event starts in July and continues into October, so be sure to have plenty of dun and spinner patterns with you. Otherwise, the same flies that work on Rapid Creek work here. Spring Creek also has great midge hatches in the fall, and trout eagerly take #18 and smaller Griffith’s Gnats.
Spearfish Creek, which flows through Spearfish Canyon in the northern Black Hills, is a great place to visit in the fall, not only for the fishing, but for the creek’s beautiful aspen-lined banks that create a riot of yellow beneath limestone cliffs. It’s a wonderful sight to see a vein of yellow cut through the Black Hills carpet of pine. Spearfish Creek has rainbows, browns, and brookies and is home to one of the healthiest populations of wild rainbows in the Black Hills. The stream’s wide, flat runs provide great dry-fly action, and its fast, narrow runs offer challenging nymphing situations.
French Creek, located in Custer State Park, is often overlooked by anglers. That’s too bad, because it’s the only place east of Yellowstone Park where a 2,000-pound buffalo might interrupt your casting. French Creek has plenty of 10- to 12-inch rainbows, too, and a #14 Elk-hair Caddis dead-drifted through the creek’s riffles and into the slower pools often drives big rainbows crazy.
Castle and Boxelder creeks offer great scenery, easy access, light fishing pressure, and nice populations of stocked and wild rainbows, browns, and brookies. Fall is a fun time to fish these creeks because hoppers are active and on the water. Fish a Dave’s Hopper, Stimulator, or other hopper pattern close to the bank to get the fish’s attention. Water conditions change often on these streams, depending on rainfall–one day they can be perfect for dry-fly fishing; the next day they can be high, muddy and practically unfishable.
I use a 71/2-foot, 5-weight rod with a floating line for all of my fishing on the larger streams, though you could get away with a 3- or 4-weight. The heavier line weight makes it easier to cast in the wind and work in the larger browns.
If you’re looking for a true Black Hills fishing challenge, try one of the area’s many “smaller” streams, which require you to sneak along the bank and cast from your knees or you may as well stay at home. Small streams like Little Spearfish, Horse, Little Boxelder, Slate, and Grace Coolidge creeks hold hearty, finicky wild brook trout that won’t even look at your fly if your approach and presentations are not perfect.
Cindy Card Photo A #14 Elk-hair Caddis dead-drifted through the French Creek’s riffles often drives big rainbows crazy.
These small streams often require a long walk to reach, but they are worth the effort. Ask for directions at one of the fly shops in the Hills if you are up to testing your small-stream skills. The streams have zero crowds and great rewards.
A 3-weight rod is a blast on these smaller streams, but a heavier outfit can load much quicker in tight places where you don’t have much room to cast, and help rip flies from overhanging brush. I find terrestrial patterns–beetles, ants, and hoppers–to be the most effective on these small-stream brookies.
Just like the streams, Black Hills lakes can be categorized into large and small. All of the lakes are manmade and either 40 acres and smaller or 100 acres and larger, but not all of them hold trout. At one time they did, but over the past ten years or so, two lakes–Sheridan Lake and Pactola Reservoir–have been polluted with illegally-stocked northern pike, and the trout don’t last long after a stocking. Several other lakes still offer excellent trout fishing and are great for float-tubing.
Canyon Lake, off Jackson Boulevard, is located inside the Rapid City limits. Though small, Canyon holds huge trout–stocked rainbows and browns up to 30 inches–and because of its proximity to the Cleghorn Springs Fish Hatchery, the state dumps a few brood stock in the lake each year. Pictures of these 30-inch, 12-pound monsters decorate the wall in Rapid City’s Dakota Angler and Outfitter fly shop. A #12 Woolly Bugger stripped slowly through the lake’s currents often gets the trout’s attention. A parking lot and boat ramp at the west end of the lake offer easy and convenient access to the water.
Sylvan Lake is special not only for its fishing for rainbows and browns, but for its location. The lake sits at the foot of Harney Peak, the highest peak between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. The lake is small, but was built among nubs of granite that sprout from the water like the spikes on a pair of baseball cleats. Sylvan sits at the top of Needle Highway, one of the most exhilarating and beautiful car rides in the Black Hills. A parking lot at the lake makes for easy access.
Deerfield Lake may be the best of the Black Hills’ bigger lakes. Located 14 miles west of Hill City, this long, skinny lake is best fished along its banks, where large groups of rainbows and browns congregate.
If you plan to fish any of the Black Hills lakes, cast a bead-head nymph, Woolly Bugger, or Black-nosed Dace streamer to within a few feet of the bank and retrieve it slowly. Just as the sun sets, tie on a #16 Zug Bug and speed up the retrieval a bit. Fish seem to prefer the smaller fly and the flash of the peacock sword tail. I usually fish with floating lines on the lakes, but during the middle of summer, a sinking line helps me get the fly to the trout holding deep in the cooler water.
Before heading out to any of the bigger lakes in the Hills, check the weather report. The wind can howl in the Hills and make maneuvering a float tube next to impossible.
If you’re driving to some Western river and you’re passing through the Black Hills, or if you’re sightseeing at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, or Custer State Park, keep your fly rod ready. You may cross a great trout stream or pass a good lake. If you take the time to stop, you won’t regret it.
For advice and information
on water levels, weather, hatches, contact the following Black Hills fly shops.
Dakota Angler and Outfitter
516 Seventh Street
Rapid City, SD 57701
316 West Main Street
Lead, SD 57754
Fly fishing for trout in South Dakota