First a digression: My wife and I just returned from a roadtrip to South Dakota, to the Badlands and the Black Hills. Having spent a good bit of time fishing, hiking, and camping in the Rocky Mountains, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the Black Hills. But I wasn’t. They’re beautiful (at least to this flatlander). Forests of Ponderosa pine, aspen, paper birch, and cottonwood. High grassland meadows not unlike the “parks” of Colorado. Although the highest peak in the Black Hills soars to a modest 7,000+ feet, I felt like I was in Rocky Mountain National Park sans the high, snowladen peaks. Custer State Park is the jewel of this region with 73,000 acres, a 1,300-strong bison herd, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, and other fauna. Like Yellowstone without the geothermal features. With four lodges scattered inside the park and several campgrounds, the amenities at Custer rival, and exceed, those of many national parks.
Fishing within Custer state park is, however, mediocre at best. Four lakes provide some fun angling for stocker rainbows. French Creek looks like a real mountain trout stream, but like the guy in the Crying Game who romances the beautiful woman only to discover “she” is a guy, the creek reveals itself as a chub creek, apparently the trout population having been decimated by drought over the last few years.
Grace Coolidge Creek exits Center Lake (itself stocked with rainbows and brookies, and there are a couple of miles of fishable stream below the lake. My wife and I snagged a couple small browns. Nothing to write home about. I did, however, meet a very nice fellow, a local, on the stream who was getting acquainted with his new TenkaraUSA rod. He informed me that the fishing guides in the Rapid City area “crazy” for tenkara. It seems that especially with novice clients, tenkara gets them on fish faster and tips are larger. Take that, Lefty!
Four lakes within the park offer angling for a variety of species. Stockade lake contains bass, crappie, pike, and panfish. Trout can be found in Center and Sylvan lakes. Trout and bass swim the waters of Legion lake. Sylvan lake lies at the northern terminus of the scenic Needles Highway. Having only packed my Iwana, I hadn’t really planned to do any lake fishing. But when I spied numerous rise rings erupting on Sylvan’s surface, I knew I had to try. In order to try to reach the cruising trout, I added about ten feet of tippet to my twelve foot level line and attached a #16 Elk Hair Caddis. Before long I was connected to several rainbows, ranging from eight to fourteen inches. What fun! Inexplicably, the park ranger who stopped to watch us and chat said she had never seen anyone fishing there with flyrods before! Many people hiking the beautiful lake’s perimeter stopped to inquire about my tenkara gear. Think I made a few converts that day. Enthralled, I watched another angler, an osprey who swooped to the lake’s surface and flew away, clutching a trout.
As much as I was enjoying my time at Custer State Park, I was anxious to pursue the wild ‘bows and browns of Spearfish Creek. Speakfish Creek descends through scenic Spearfish Canyon, for approximately twenty miles along highway 14A, a paved, winding road connecting Cheyenne Crossing at its south end and the town of Spearfish at its north. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway snakes through thick forests and towering limestone cliffs. Hiking opportunities abound, and two attractive wateralls are easily accessible, Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls. Did I mention the fishing? For most of the canyon Spearfish Creek paralles 14A with numerous pullouts providing easy access to the stream on public land. Most of Spearfish Creek is a moderate gradient freestone stream with tons of appealing pocket water but assumes a meandering meadow persona along the trail to Roughlock Falls. Self-sustaining populations of browns and rainbows call Spearfish Creek home. No stocking of trout has occurred here since the 1970s. Although wild, I found the Spearfish trout quite willing to rise to a #16 Elk Hair Caddis, if presented with a modicum of care.
Due to time constraints, I did not fish Rapid Creek, another scenic Black Hills wild trout stream…but I will. Tenkara and the Black Hills. A perfect match.