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The Black Hills of western South Dakota are famous for many things easternmost extension of the Rocky Mountains… Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument…Wild Bill’s Deadwood reborn with gambling… biggest US gold mine… geographical center of North America… spectacular Badlands… sacred center of Plains Indian religion. It is an appealing destination for many reasons, but fly fishing for trout is not generally considered one of them.
Indeed, the area originally had no trout at all. What it did have, however, was year round springs and ideal trout habitat. Soon after white settlers got established in the area in the 1880’s, one of the nation’s earliest fish hatcheries was built here to populate these promising streams. Over the years, brown trout proved to be the most successful in naturally reproducing under pressure from mining, agriculture and urbanization. Today, the Black Hills offer some of the finest small stream, wild brown fly fishing anywhere.
The fishery is concentrated in the northern part of the Hills, which are higher, cooler and wetter essentially the creeks flowing out of the Hills into the Belle Fourche ("Pretty Fork") basin of the Missouri River. Some are small rivers, while others are so tiny you would not believe they hold five pound fish until you see them (catching them is another matter). Black Hills streams are among the most technically challenging I’ve ever seen; if there was a fly fishing Olympics, it could be held here.
What we’re talking about is a prolific small stream fishery, where you can catch a lot of six to 12 inch fish. However, the habitat also supports 13 to 16 inch fish, and there’s a chance for a trophy too, if you’re good enough. In my mind, these are the necessary ingredients of a "Gold Medal Water," and if there was such a program officially in the Black Hills, these would be my nominations:
Spearfish Canyon: The northernmost Hills are drained by Spearfish Creek, which rises on 7,000 foot volcanic upthrusts and carves a gorgeous 25 mile canyon down through ancient limestone seabeds from Cheyenne Crossing to the town of Spearfish, the area’s urban center. A good blacktop road makes access easy, but where the stream is high gradient and rugged, casual tourists are quickly discouraged.
The way to fish it is slow, sneaky rock hopping upstream under the timbered canopy with a two or three weight rod. The best fishing is in the middle section of the canyon, especially the area improved by Black Hills Flyfishers and protected with no kill regs. This is one of the few places in the Hills where rainbows do well. Much of the land along this corridor is private, but is clearly marked accessible to the public within the high water mark. If the Homestake Gold Mine at Lead did not suck so much water out of this stream, it would be world class. As it is, it’s very good. A few miles before reaching Spearfish, the stream disappears into the water treatment facilities of the town, to reemerge at City Park and the historic D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery, where monster rainbows delight tourists in a mini Sea World shrine to 19th Century fish culture.
Lower Spearfish Creek: Flowing north under I 90 and beyond the town, Spearfish Creek becomes more like the meadow waters of Montana, combining fast moving riffles with languid pools and undercut banks. Water volume is recharged both by spring creeks and return irrigation flows. Virtually all this land is private, and back roads only occasionally cross or come near the river. It is jealously protected by locals who know its charms, and for good reason. This stretch of several miles includes some of the best small river habitat you can envision, and has browns averaging from 10 to 15 inches to at least eight pounds.
Unless you have private permission, access points are the bridges, but as in Montana, if you stay within the high water mark, you’ll be okay (still, it’s a good idea to ask at the small ranches you’ll be wading though if you want to avoid an unpleasant encounter). Further downstream, Spearfish Creek joins Redwater Creek and shortly thereafter the Belle Fourche. Although the upper Redwater is blocked off by large ranches, this section and portions of the Belle Fourche itself are accessible, prime brown trout water, if you have the stamina to wade through head high marsh grasses sort of a silty version of Silver Creek in Idaho with much of the same potential (Nature Conservancy, please take note).
Rapid Creek and Pactola Canyon: Draining the easterly slopes of the Black Hills is Rapid Creek, which fills Pactola Reservoir and then flows down through Rapid City, urban center of the Hills (also its major airport, served by Northwest Airlines). Downstream of the dam, several miles are protected by catch and release regs and offer good shots at 14 to 16 inch fish with occasional trophies provided you’re willing to walk into this rugged canyon or fish it in low light or at night. I saw a brown of a least five pounds feeding in a deep pool where I turned around. I would like to return here with a car shuttle and hike through this pristine gem. Downstream, according to local experts, the fishing remains good right on through town. Fishing is also good above the reservoir’s inlet, especially with seasonal spawning runs.
Castle Creek: Deerfield Lake, on this headwater of Rapid Creek, offers an excellent spring creek like tailwater below the dam. Considerable stream improvement efforts have been focused here, but chronic low flows have severely reduced fish populations in the easy walk in section, which could not now be recommended. Downstream to the town of Mystic, however, the stream picks up new flows and enters a rugged canyon I would someday like to explore. This is one of few Black Hills canyon stretches not followed by road.
North Rapid Creek: When I fished this fork on my recent trip, it took me back in time to the Black Hills I remember when I first came here 35 years ago, most particularly the funky, unspoiled hamlet of Rochford with its fabulous Moonshine Gulch Bar, still there now without any change except the "University of the Black Hills" in a former church. On the upper reaches of the North Fork you travel up a dead end road to a high mountain valley where you pick your way through century old deadfall, nailing one little brown after another on a stream you could step across in many places…until you meet the king hell two pounder, who rips you off before you know it!
Sand Creek: Though technically in Wyoming (and officially considered a Blue Ribbon Water in that state), this amazing spring creek properly belongs to the Black Hills. It drains the western side of the Hills, carving an unknown Grand Canyon of its own before becoming a spring creek fed trophy fishery that flows some 20 miles northward to I 90, most of it accessible through state leases from private ranchers, with many great camping opportunities. In the upper section, the fishery is artificially enhanced by the valley’s state fish hatchery many fish, and a few frightfully big fish, are easily observed in these watercress and algae rich spring creek flows. When I was there last, the day after Labor Day, I was the only flyfisher there. But that didn’t make it a whole lot easier on that bright sunny day. I had to sneak up very carefully to even have a chance, and found my best results in long downstream dry fly floats through channels seldom more than three or four feet wide. I just wish my results included the five pounder I saw!
Local expert Larry Weeks (*), who operates the only fly shop in the Black Hills in the town of Lead, calls streams like these "micro spring creeks." They have all the characteristics of eastern limestone spring creeks, he explains, except on a smaller scale. "The best part about them," he says, "is they’re too tough for beginners and tourists, so they really get little skilled pressure. There really isn’t much of a developed fly fishing culture here, so those who know how to do it have things pretty much to themselves."
Weeks is a custom rodbuilder I met years ago at a sportsman’s show, where I experienced casting his exquisite hand built rods on Hectograph blanks. You can reach him at his new shop, the Custom Caster (*). He’ll give you accurate and experienced advice on fishing the Black Hills. Be sure you ask about "micro springs" like Crow Creek that I couldn’t find on my own.
For more general information on the Black Hills, contact the Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association of South Dakota (*). Ask for a free map of the roads and streams of the Hills, plus other attractions. Another good source of information is the state’s "Hunting and Fishing Packet" available from the South Dakota Department of Tourism (*). The information you can get from these two sources will round out what you need to give this region a try. The best time to do that, incidentally, is in the fall, after the tourists have left, or in the spring before they arrive. Hugh Gardner.