Black Hills

The lure and limits of private land.

Illustration by Bob White
By John Gierach

My friend Paul and I were fishing the Black Hills in South Dakota at a place that was once so secret it was known to insiders as Area 51, although now it’s clearly marked as “Walk-in Fishing” with a four-car parking lot and a sign warning of the combined hazards of ticks, rattlesnakes and poison ivy. On the drive in we’d passed an enormous bull buffalo ambling up the center line of the two-lane road with the nonchalant air of an animal that weighs a ton and goes where it damned well pleases. We eased past him at the slowest-possible speed, with the emergency flashers going in case another car roared up behind us. I could have reached out the open window and touched him—but didn’t—and even at point-blank range there was no sign that his big, brown chestnut eye registered our presence.

A little farther on I drove right past the place we were looking for and didn’t realize it until we came to the landmark that told us we’d gone too far. (When the directions include the phrase, “You can’t miss it,” I can miss it and usually do.)

This was a place where a narrow creek runs from a headwater lake down a few miles of forested valley. There are small ponds dammed up on the descending benches of land and a big sprawling pond right at the parking lot. We’d planned to hike up the trail, but trout were boiling on the bottom pond when we pulled in and no one was fishing, so we started there.

‘‘ We could have gone in cold—which is not a bad way to discover new water if you have the time—but I’d hedged our bet using a journalist’s trick I picked up back in my newspaper days. ’’

These fish were taking something just under the surface and leaving swirls that were sometimes broken by a tail or dorsal fin. There weren’t enough boils to let us pick out an individual trout and lead it, so we blind-fished the water with slowly retrieved small nymphs. Strikes came mostly from the shrinking band of shade along the east shore in the form of indecisive tweaks that were easy to miss, slower pulls that left time to set the hook and the occasional hard yank that was almost a sure thing as long as you didn’t break off your fly. These were all rainbows ranging from 10 or 11 inches long to a few big boys pushing 16. We guessed that the smaller trout had been freshly stocked earlier that year, while the big ones were holdovers. We wondered if there could be a few even older, larger trout in there, and that kept us fishing through the morning until the day turned hot, the shade vanished and the fishing petered off.

By the time we hiked up the valley, we were into the heat of the day and things had really slowed down. We picked up a few odd trout deep in the ponds, but in the creek it was nothing but the ubiquitous four-inch-long chubs that are nothing if not persistent and don’t seem to care about water temperature.

On the third pond we stopped to say hello to another fly fisherman who was only the second of our kind we’d seen since we’d gotten to the Black Hills. He was a poet named Michael who allowed as how the life of a poet in South Dakota wasn’t an easy one, but he understood this would be part of the deal from the beginning and didn’t hold it against anyone. I guessed him in his late 30s or early 40s, and he held his fly rod thoughtlessly at his side like someone who’s carried one all his life.

Farther up the valley we passed a man, his wife and a wet cocker spaniel coming down the trail. The man was carrying a spinning rod and a stringer with two small brook trout from the headwater lake. That guy and the poet constituted the biggest crowd of fishermen we saw on the whole trip.

I’d been hearing about the trout fishing in the Black Hills for a few years by then but always by way of second- or third-hand reports that were long on generalities but short on specifics. The only eyewitness account I’d heard was from Paul, who once had driven through there on his way somewhere else, noticed all of the small creeks and stopped to fish for a day. He didn’t remember much except that he’d picked a stream at random, caught a fat rainbow on his first cast and been a day late getting where he was going.

So I was curious. Maybe it was the description I’d heard of this region as “an island of pine in an ocean of prairie” that made it sound like an undiscovered paradise, or the claims that although the fishing was pretty good by small-stream standards, the great trout country of the Rocky Mountains began only a day’s drive to the west, so very few people ever stopped to fish the Black Hills. But whatever the reason for it, neglected trout fishing not that far from home was too much to resist.

We could have gone in cold—which is not a bad way to discover new water if you have the time—but I’d hedged our bet using a journalist’s trick I picked up back in my newspaper days. I cold-called people at the National Forest Service, state parks and South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks offices, half-listened as they recited the text from their Web sites more or less verbatim, and then politely asked if there was anyone who could go into more detail. In this way I gradually worked down the bureaucratic food chain from the people behind desks to those driving pickup trucks until finally a man said, “You know, you should talk to Keith.”

“Let me guess,” I said, “Keith is the guy on the crew who always has a fly rod in his car and goes fishing while everyone else is eating lunch.”

“Yeah,” the guy said. “You know him?”

Keith Wintersteen turned out to have a background in fisheries and was now working as a naturalist with Game, Fish & Parks as well as being a kind of unofficial and possibly self-appointed booster for Black Hills trout fishing. On the phone he recited the tourist brochure stuff I already had, but as we talked more and hit it off in the way of fishermen with a ready-made universe of discourse, he began to let slip the kind of things we might not have rooted out on our own. So in September when Paul and I drove out across that ocean of prairie—which, coming from the southwest, includes parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota—I had a crossword puzzle of tips, hints and landmarks that I assumed would make more sense once we got the lay of the land.

This was a quiet drive, partly because the prairie viewed through a windshield is trance-inducing, but also because Paul has nodes on his vocal cords that give his voice the volume and timbre of wind in dry leaves, so it can’t rise above the road noise of my 15-year-old pickup. (When he’s fishing, he carries a whistle, so if he gets in trouble, he won’t have to whisper, “Help! Help!”) When we drove for miles through fields of cultivated sunflowers that stretched to the horizon in both directions, we exchanged a smile. When Paul needed to pee or wanted coffee, he’d point at a truck stop up the road and nod. It was sort of like going for a long ride with a cat.

On our first morning we met Keith for breakfast at a café in Hill City, and then followed him down first paved and then dirt roads to a stream he liked. It was medium-size, meandering across a wide, flat valley with gravel bars, cut banks and deep corner pools. The sight of this water seemed incongruous in these dry, rolling, pine-forested hills that looked black in the distance to early pioneers.

I flushed grasshoppers ahead of me on the walk down to the water, so I tied on a size 12 Dave’s Hopper and fished it through three or four pools. Nothing. I bore down harder, trying for flawless dead drifts, and then tried snaking my hopper up against darkly undercut banks with little struggling twitches I thought no trout could resist. Then I added a weighted dropper and broke it off on a snag on the first cast. The snag turned out to be an old roughly milled beam with corroded ironwork left over from a hundred-year-old mining operation.

An hour and a half later I still hadn’t had a touch and was just going through the motions when a good-size brown trout nailed my hopper. It was so startling I only hooked him because he hooked himself and I managed not to drop the rod.

Paul had similar news: Nothing for the longest time, then he’d found a small pod of rising trout in a corner pool and by casting, resting the water and changing flies, he’d managed to get two foot-long brook trout.

Keith didn’t offer a report, which could mean he’d landed a dozen trout or none, or that as the perfect host he hadn’t even fished.

On the walk back to the trucks we agreed that the day was too sunny and hot for the fish to be very active. In South Dakota, as in much of the Mountain West, climate change has caused the seasons to slide forward by six weeks in recent decades, so that early September is now more like mid-July. Some of us haven’t gotten used to that yet.

Keith had to work that afternoon, but before he left he led us around more backroads to point out more creeks, getting us a little lost in the process. He’d drive for a while, and then stop so I could pull up beside him, blocking both lanes while we talked through our open windows.

After Keith left, Paul and I decided that what we needed was shade, so we picked a narrow creek that flowed out of the trees above a reservoir. It seemed fishless in the sunny stretches, but as soon as we got into the deep shade of the woods, trout would flash out from under the grassy banks to grab our hoppers—and in one bend pool with a current seam hugging the outside bank I landed a brown, a brook trout and a rainbow on only twice that many casts.

‘‘ He’s so persistent he can spend an hour on the same pool I’d breeze through in 15 minutes with my typically Western take-it-or-leave-it attitude. ’’

When I looked up from releasing the rainbow, I realized I was in the manicured front yard of a cabin with a shiny SUV parked in the driveway—clearly private land. My first instinct was to fade back into the trees before I was spotted, but the rule here, as it is in Montana, is that you can fish through any private property as long as you stay in the stream. Keith said it took him years to get used to that, and I understood what he meant. If a landowner saw you fishing in a place like this in Colorado, he’d call his lawyer, in Wyoming he might open fire, but in the Black Hills he’d just wave. The reception might be different if there were more fishermen around, but as it is you just seem rustically harmless, especially when they can’t see your pickup with its out-of-state plates.

That night Paul an-nounced, in this gravelly, Don Corleone voice, that it was his birthday and he wanted pizza, so we stopped at a biker bar outside of Hill City that was reported to have the best pizza in town. We ordered a large with everything, and the bartender said, “It’s gonna take a while. All my summer help went back to college, so it’s just me.”

In fact, the whole town had that same aspect of a place that’s still open for business but gradually winding down at the end of summer, with most of the part-time help and many of the tourists having fled back to their real lives. All that remained were weary locals, motorcyclists left over from the Sturgis Rally and retirees in Winnebagos. Even the little 1950s-vintage cabin we’d rented came at a cheap, off-season rate. As for the bar, there were hogs in the gravel parking lot and Steppenwolf on the jukebox, but many of the bikers who were convincingly menacing back in the 1960s and ’70s are now grandparents on Social Security who go to bed at 9 o’clock, so the likelihood of mayhem seemed remote.

The next day we tried one of the larger streams in the region where it flows out of the hills around Silver City. We parked at a gate where ours was the only vehicle in the pullout and walked up a gravel road that became a two-track and then tapered off into a foot trail along the water. This stream was said to be flowing high for September because of an unusually wet summer, but even then it would have been just barely big enough to thread a canoe down and you still would have had to walk the boat through some of the riffles.

The stream flowed through a ravine almost narrow enough to be called a canyon, with the slopes forested in ponderosa pine and the streambanks overgrown with the kind of dense, head-high brush that grabs your legs, tangles your fly rod and plucks off your hat. One of the drawbacks to a shortage of fishermen is that there are no trails beaten down to the good pools, even though you could wish there were.

I blew what would have been my best South Dakota trout here. I’d made a down- and across-stream cast toward a log jam that blocked half of a bend pool: the kind of place where a big trout will wait out the middle of a bright day with the option of grabbing the odd grasshopper that drifts too close. The cast was good, but I’d misjudged the conflicting currents, and the fly started to drag while it was still a few feet from the logs. So I threw an upstream mend that scooted the fly forward a few inches just as a brown trout no less than 18 inches rolled at it and missed. It was the kind of accident of timing that defines a life in fishing and that you’d think you’d eventually get used to.

We got wind of a stream near Deadwood that once had been stocked with tiger trout and might still have some. A tiger trout is a cross between a brook trout and a brown named for its distinctive tiger-like stripes. This hybrid can occur in nature, like a splake or a cuttbow, but it’s extremely rare. Most tiger trout are engineered in hatcheries by the kind of biologists who splice jellyfish genes into house cats to make them glow in the dark. No one knows why.

The streams in the Black Hills are kept cool by springs percolating through porous volcanic rock, and they make for good trout habitat, but there were no trout here originally—the native fish ran to chubs, suckers and sunfish—so fish culturists would have seen these creeks as a blank canvas perfect for planting weird hybrids with no concern for their impact on indigenous gamefish. Anyway, neither of us had ever caught or even seen a tiger trout, so this stream became the kind of odd quest that sometimes fills the vacuum of an aimless
fishing trip.

I got in at the bottom of a pool lying in the shade of a cliff and began casting my hopper to the tail-out just above the riffle. It was another cloudless day, already warm and heading toward hot, and this hundred yards of rock outcrop threw the only shade in sight. I could see Paul ahead of me at the upstream end of the cliff and vowed to fish my water as slowly as he fished his.

Paul is from Michigan, and like the other fishermen I know from that state, he’s so persistent he can spend an hour on the same pool I’d breeze through in 15 minutes with my typically Western take-it-or-leave-it attitude. This is a regional trait they all share; it’s as distinctive as holding up their hands with the fingers together and the thumbs out to make the mitten shape of the state, and then pointing to where they’re from. If I were keeping score, I’d say my Michigan friends and I usually come out about even in terms of fish caught, but they get theirs in a third less water than I do, so under oath I might be forced to admit that they’re better fishermen.

I got three trout on the hopper in that pool, then, fighting off the urge to move on, added a small pheasant-tail dropper, fished through it again and got another. After a 10-minute rest I switched to an elk-hair caddis and got another trout, then added a soft-hackle dropper to that and got two more. After another, longer rest I fished through again with the same hopper I’d started with and got one more fish right up at the head of the pool. It was the biggest one: a brown about 14 inches long that I’d never have seen if I’d fished through on the first pass. I don’t know how long I spent in this spot, but it was long enough for the shadow of the cliff to sidle halfway across the pool. I vowed to slow down my fishing pace from there on out.

‘‘ It didn’t register at first, but there was nothing else it could have been, with those paisley stripes on its flanks and a blush of tigerish orange on the belly. ’’

From there we fished around a bend and worked up through two more pools and on into a long stretch of riffles punctuated by narrow slicks all in full, hot sun. We got a few more fish, but they were mostly small—nothing like the nice ones from the shady cliff pools—and they were the usual mix of brookies, browns and rainbows. We never saw a tiger trout, but there’s an odd footnote. A month later I caught one while fishing the olive hatch on the Frying Pan River back in Colorado. It didn’t register at first, but there was nothing else it could have been, with those paisley stripes on its flanks and a blush of tigerish orange on the belly. In 40 years of fishing the Pan, no one I know had ever seen or even heard of a tiger trout in that river—or anywhere else in Colorado for that matter. When the guys at the fly shop in town saw a photo of it, all they could say was, “Huh?” It was a real head-scratcher.

Paul was back in Michigan by then, and I sent him the photo. He wrote that it was the fulfillment of incipient karma, period. Even before his voice became barely audible, Paul was a man of few words.


John Gierach
About John Gierach 8 Articles
John Gierach's latest book is All Fishermen Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).

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