Love at first bite in South Dakota

By Kyle Wagner
Denver Post Travel Editor

Posted: 06/05/2010 01:16:53 AM MDT


Updated: 06/05/2010 01:17:23 AM MDT
After six hours of shiver-inducing cold and leaden dampness, the sun has finally appeared over the lake, taking the day from dark and near- freezing to bright and hot so quickly that it’s like someone flipped a switch.
We were just starting to get the hang of this fly-fishing thing, I and my dear friend Phyllis Reynolds, who gamely said, “Sure!” when I asked her to hop on a plane from Pennsylvania and then ride along to the Black Hills of South Dakota to try something we’d always thought looked kind of intimidating.On the drive we talked about the mystique surrounding fly-fishing, a sport that has inspired poetry and a seemingly purposefully esoteric language, not to mention the fly-fishing-focused movie “A River Runs

Dave Gamet of Dakota Angler & Outfitter helps Phyllis Reynolds with her casting technique. (Kyle Wagner, The Denver Post)

Through It,” which certainly drew more attention to an already obsession-inducing pastime.But so help me, the second I land my first fish, a lovely 9-inch rainbow trout, what immediately pops into my head is the line “Give me back that Filet-o- Fish!” from the McDonald’s commercial. Ahhhh!Thank heavens this is catch-and-release.We’re fly-fishing in Custer State Park, specifically Center Lake — not our first choice, but today our best choice because it has been raining for about 40 days and 40 nights, and the streams are running so high that Black Hills residents who don’t even fish are wearing waders just in case.”Look at them rising!” Dave Gamet, our guide from Dakota Angler & Outfitter, had exclaimed. Translation: The fish were coming up to the surface to eat bugs in a way that makes visible ripples as we made a scouting drive around Sylvan Lake. We headed to Center, about a 20-minute jaunt over the scenic Needles Highway. Center would be better, he said, with fewer people and more cooperative fish.This is the first lesson we learn about fly-fishing. Unlike spin fishing — the kind most of us are familiar with, where you use a spinning lure to attract the fish —  

Pronghorns are found all over Custer State Park but especially along the aptly named Wildlife Loop Road.

fly-fishing often involves nonstop challenges that require you to continually rethink your approach. This is not putting a worm on a hook, popping open a beer and kicking back for an afternoon. In fact, alcohol plus waders usually equals trouble.”Fly-fishing is sort of like a chess game that’s constantly being presented to you,” Gamet says. “Nature gives you the pieces, and you have to figure the game out as you go along.”On this day, nature has given us enough water throughout the Black Hills to start thinking about building an ark. Streams that never existed before have coaxed bullfrogs out from the primordial ooze, and existing streams are running so high that it indeed could be deadly to wade in.That’s why we’ve been waist-deep in Center Lake, wearing what feels like footed pajamas made out of rubber, trying to look like female versions of Brad Pitt, elegantly swooshing our rods back and forth.I feel about as elegant as an elephant doing ballet; Phyllis, on the other hand, is like a woman possessed, and not only does she catch a half-dozen fish in the first hour, she announces that fly-fishing might be her thing.I manage to get tangled up in the line, hook Gamet in the thumb and catch nothing until the afternoon.But once I do, look out. Gimme that fish! Paradise hatchedWhy learn how to fly-fish in the Black Hills? First of all, it’s beautiful. If you’re going to stand around waist-deep in water, you might as well be surrounded by rolling hills and ponderosa pines and spruce and meandering bison and pronghorn.  But there’s another reason, one well worth considering when fish are the goal: natural reproduction occurs in abundance here, so there are wild fish all over the place; they generously stock only where it isn’t happening. The fish hatcheries raise mostly rainbow and brown trout along with Chinook salmon for Lake Oahe; you’ll also find brook and tiger trout, Northern pike, crappie, several types of bass and, of course, walleye, the state fish.What we were fishing for had been decided by our choice of Center Lake, which contained rainbow, brown and tiger trout, and that determined our rod size, as well — in fly-fishing it goes by weight; you need bigger, heavier rods for bigger, heavier fish such as bass — and then Gamet picked out the types of flies we would use based on his examination of the area, looking at which bugs were hatching.”You’ll hear the phrase ‘match the hatch’ a lot,” Gamet says. “You look around to see what the fish in each stream or lake are eating. They’re going to be most likely to go after what they’ve been used to seeing.”I wind up with a woolly bugger made out of marabou and chicken feathers, while Phyllis used a Dave Whitlock red fox squirrel nymph fly (Whitlock is a famous fly-fisherman and author of books on the subject). We use them until they stop working, and then we try something else.”There’s no magic fly,” Gamet says. “You have to present the fly to the fish, and see if it takes it. And if not, if it doesn’t work for a while, then you try another fly.” It’s the presenting part that takes a lot of practice. There are two kinds of casts, the roll cast, which gets your line and hook out and away from you — basically, it keeps you from hooking yourself or anyone else — so that you can go ahead and do the other kind of cast, the fly cast.  The fly cast requires you to snap the line back, pause and then sort of ripple it out over the water so that it lays itself down neatly and gently in a way that makes the fish underwater think a tasty bug has just landed or popped out of its egg. The pause is crucial; it sets up the line in a way that makes it ripple out nicely. Otherwise, you’ll just have a big mess, and the fish will all gather beneath the water and laugh at you.Gamet has a great way of helping his clients pause in a personal way: “Say your state and then say it’s a good place to be from,” he says. “So bring the line back, pause, and say, ‘Colorado’s a good place to be from.’ It’s the perfect amount of time.”It is. The trick, though, is that you have to remember to say it. And also keep your wrist from flexing, and your arm straight, and your shoulder stiff, and your hip from twisting. Again, this isn’t sitting on a lawn chair on the banks lazily watching a bobber (and whatever you do, don’t say “bobber” in fly-fishing; it’s an “indicator” if you use one, and they’d rather you didn’t). Even though the water is near freezing, we work up a sweat in no time. On Day 2, Keith Wintersteen, assistant manager of McNenny Fish Hatchery in Spearfish, took us to Robber’s Roost, an area not far off Wildlife Loop Road in the park that’s known to local fishermen as Area 51. It’s a bison watering hole that requires a mile-long hike in.It had rained again overnight, and water was still running in places it wasn’t supposed to. Like Gamet, Wintersteen immediately keyed in on the fact that the fish were “rising” and began assessing our approach.”When people fly-fish, they should sit down and tie a fly for a while, kind of watch the water for a little bit,” Wintersteen says. “Get the lay of the land. It relaxes you, first of all, and kind of gets you into the rhythm of the environment. And it lets you see what the fish are doing and what they’re going to go for.” It’s windy today, though, and what worked the day before isn’t going to work here. We wind up having to use an indicator to help weight the line, and hilariously, the fish love the thing. They keep trying to bite it. So we improvise, moving the hook right next to the indicator. They go crazy for it, and Phyllis lands a rapid succession of fish with it.”I’ll be danged,” Wintersteen says. “See, this is exactly what we mean when we say that fly-fishing is about adapting. Don’t be afraid to change what you’re doing.”There was a moment during the learning process when it finally clicked. The line hung in midair as I announced that Colorado was a good place to be from. I had caught enough fish that I no longer squealed, but quickly got it off the hook and moved right on to roll casting the fly away and fly casting back out again.I don’t think it will ever replace mountain biking or river rafting for me, but it could be an occasional activity.Right at this moment, though, I think Phyllis is back in Pennsylvania pricing rods and reels.”It wasn’t at all what I expected,” she said. “It’s the thinking part, and the fact that it’s a workout — those things combined. I can’t wait to do it again.”Kyle Wagner: 303-954-1599,, @kylewagnerworld

Do you need a guide?

For us, fly-fishing for the first time without guides would just have been several days of standing around in the water waving rods around. Sure, we might have gotten lucky with a couple of fish, but 25 between the two of us the first day? Not a chance.Understanding the concept of “match the hatch” — discovering what bugs were moving around in which bodies of water so we could pick the right flies — along with learning how to manipulate the rod for successful roll and fly casting, and setting the hook and stripping the line, are all things that we grasped much faster and better with someone gently correcting our technique the hundred or so times we did it wrong.  Could we have figured all of this out ourselves? Of course, but it would have taken at least twice as long, been much less fun, and again, we wouldn’t have caught a thing for some time.Cost: Most guide services charge the same price or a relatively small amount above that for two or more people, so it’s worth it to take two or three friends along to share the costs.  For instance, our guide the first day, Dave Gamet of Dakota Angler & Outfitter (605-341-2450, flyfishsd .com), charges $375 for one or two people for a full day and $250 for one or two anglers on a half-day trip. Lunch is included on a full day, as well as rods and waders. You supply the fishing license.

They work for you

Gamet points out that some people just want to be taken to the water, have a rod put in their hands and then be minimally assisted with the process.”They just want to fish, end of story,” he says. “And then there are those who have a million questions and want to know every little thing about what we’re doing, or they want to progress to the next level. You need to tell the guide what kind of experience you want. They’ll do it your way, but you can’t be shy. They’re there to make it happen the way you want.” If the cost is too prohibitive or you would rather try it on your own, Keith Wintersteen suggests still stopping by an outfitter or fly-fishing shop to get pointers about what you need, the hatch in the area and where to try your luck. “An outfitter has a vested interest in getting you out there and really doing well and enjoying this,” Wintersteen says. “They’re usually willing to invest the time and effort to really get you involved, ’cause they know that if you get into it, you’ll be a lifelong enthusiast.” Kyle Wagner 

Insider’s Guide

Fly-fishing in the Black Hills Get there: It’s a 375-mile drive to Custer, S.D., from Denver, which takes six to seven hours. Take Interstate 25 north to Orin, Wyo. (Exit 126), then follow U.S. 18 east into South Dakota. Take South Dakota 89 north (it joins U.S. 385 north) to Custer. Another option is to drive across the scenic Nebraska panhandle and avoid Wyoming’s well-traveled U.S. 1 8/85. Take Interstate 25 north to Interstate 76 east to Colorado 71, which then turns into Nebraska 71 and then South Dakota 71. Follow that into Hot Springs, S.D., and then take U.S. 385 north to your Black Hills destination. At 420 miles, it takes about an hour longer; Scottsbluff, Neb., makes a good stopping point for a bite to eat.Prefer to fly? Delta, Frontier, Midwest and United fly non-stop from Denver International Airport (DEN) to Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). Summer rates start at about $244 round-trip. The drive to Custer from there, via U.S. 1 6/385, is 42 miles and takes about an hour. Note: Rental cars in Rapid City often cost more than elsewhere places because there’s an extra charge for unlimited mileage — up to $20 a day. They expect you to drive a lot.Gear: First up: a fishing license. Cost: Non-resident, one-day $16; non-resident 3-day $34; annual $62 (includes the $2 agent fee). You can buy online ( or at a fishing outfitter or retail outlet, hardware or sporting goods store. Until you know the limits and rules, it’s a good idea to print out the regulations ( /rules-regs.aspx).Next you need the equipment to catch the fish, a basic “kit.” Both of our guides say a good- quality kit can be had for about $200, which would include a rod, a reel, fly line, enough monofilament line to make the leader (the line between the fly line and the tippet) and the tippet (the smallest diameter line and the part of the line that the fly is tied onto) and flies, along with a waterproof case in which to carry them. A net isn’t necessary, but it makes dealing with the fish easier.Also good to have: Sunglasses (polarized are best; they allow you to see the fish moving around in the water), raingear, sunscreen and a hat.If you’re planning to get in the water, waders would be the next thing on the list; they come in “stocking foot” style, which fit in a pair of boots and give you a bit more stability, or boot waders, which have the boots attached. They start at about $70 (rubber ones start at $30, but once you have sweated in them for a while, you’ll see the value of breathable or at the very least, neoprene waders).As for flies, in the Black Hills, you’re mostly looking at caddis, damsel and dragonflies, midges, yellow stoneflies, speckle-winged mayflies and baetis. Check the hatch reports online for when and where, and also for the dry fly and nymph (wet fly) patterns and sizes.When to go: Fly-fishing in South Dakota is a year-round endeavor, although March to November is considered to be prime-time.More info:

Where to fish

One of the many appeals of fly-fishing in South Dakota is that you can fish anywhere as long as you can gain public access; state law says navigable rivers and streams are public highways.”If you’re driving down the road and see a stream and are wondering if there are fish in it, the answer’s yes,” says Keith Wintersteen, assistant manager at McNenny Fish Hatchery. “All you have to do is gain access at a public gate or along public property.”Otherwise, there are plenty of productive streams — 800 miles’ worth, according to Wintersteen — as well as lakes and ponds scattered throughout the state, and which ones you choose depends on what you’re looking to hook and your skill level.The Black Hills alone offer endless options. For instance, Center Lake in Custer State Park is packed with rainbow trout and brown trout, but it’s also the only place for tiger trout in the state. Brown and brook trout can be found in Battle, Iron and Beaver creeks, while Cheyenne River is the place to head for catfish and smallmouth bass.Skill-level-wise, lakes and ponds are a great place to start because they are calmer and it’s easier to see the fish when you’re practicing getting the fly to them. Deerfield Lake, for example, is a reservoir with an accessible shoreline and often the locale of state-record sizes each year, and above Deerfield, Castle Creek.For more experienced fishermen, Wintersteen recommends Crow Creek (which is right near the McNenny hatchery), Spearfish Creek and Rapid Creek, as well as French Creek, which can be accessed by hiking four to five miles from the French Creek Trailhead into the French Creek Wilderness.”Really, really experienced fishermen should check out the walk-in fishing below Deerfield,” Wintersteen says. “The water comes out of the bottom of the reservoir and it’s so clear, the fish really know what’s going on. You really have to know how to present the flies to them to get ’em.”For more suggestions, check out the guide “Trout Fishing in the Black Hills: A Guide to the Lakes & Streams of the Black Hill of South Dakota & Wyoming” ($15.95, Highweather Press), by Steve Kinsella. 

Phyllis Reynolds casts at Robber’s Roost in Custer State Park. (Kyle Wagner, The Denver Post)

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