South Dakota

June 2016

The third state in my 2016 summer fishing road trip was South Dakota. After dropping down from North Dakota and seeing the Bad Lands, we headed to Custer where we would stay with the McKinney family. I connected with Brad and Connie McKinney through another friend who I met during my fishing trip to New York. I reached out to Brad via email and briefly shared with him about my project, and he kindly welcomed my family into their home. Though we met as total strangers, they immediately felt like old, family friends. Brad is a retired US Game and Fish officer who managed many wildlife refuges, and Connie is a former special education teacher. They were a joy to be around! On our first full day, we took a break from fishing and enjoyed a beautiful hike to a peak called Devil’s Tower in Custer State Park. I had seen photos of the Black Hills but didn’t expect them to be so breathtaking in person. Connie and her dog joined us on the hike as we scrambled through rock crags and over big boulders. It was a natural playground. Of course, we also had to venture over to Mount Rushmore. It really is a sight to behold. Given my mom’s newfound obsession with the selfie fad, we certainly snapped a few along with all the other tourists. It started as a joke…

The next morning dad drove Parker and me to the Dakota Angler and Outfitter in Rapid City to meet up with our guide Shaun. I don’t honestly know what my expectations were of wild trout fishing in the Black Hills, but South Dakota has never been the first state to come to mind when someone mentions trout fishing. A few people had told me that it was pretty good, but I was excited to see for myself. Shaun told us we would try a few different areas and techniques to get a taste of the variety of fishing opportunities the area has to offer. We quickly learned that Shaun is a big fan of Tenkara fishing and is notably one of the largest individual dealers in the world. Tenkara is the oldest form of fly fishing, developed in Japan. The setup is a long rod with a short section of line and leader tied directly to the tip. It is often used in small streams and pocket water. Having grown up fishing for blue gill with a hook and bobber, it seems to me like glorified cane pole fishing, but I am sure Tenkara fanatics would take offense to that. I had only fished this way once before, in North Carolina, and it was new to Parker. We decided to give it a go at our first destination. We fished Spearfish Creek in a super accessible local park in Spearfish, SD. Shaun taught us various casting techniques and gave us a tentative rundown on what to do if we hooked up to a nice fish. It was like totally learning a whole new form of fishing. One of the fun things about fly fishing is that within the sport there are a variety of techniques and ways to target fish suitable for different environments, types of fish, and personal preferences.

We were able to check the box for South Dakota pretty early that morning. Parker caught his first fish on Tenkara, a beautiful, wild brown trout sipping little beetles. After missing a number of fish, I finally stuck a small, yet vividly colorful cutthroat. Cutties are found in Spearfish, but according to Shaun, their introduction to the stream is unknown as they are not native. We kept moving up the creek, picking up a fish here and there on beetles and small jig head nymphs. In one pool, we spotted a nice sized brown on our side of the stream. Parker let me take the shot, but for the life of me, I couldn’t get the fly in front of the fish’s face. Parker and Shaun were giving me hard time and laughing with each poor drift. I decided to let Parker give the pool a go, and I dropped down stream to the next one for a few minutes. As Parker moved up in the pool, I decided to cast back up to the fish from downstream. I laid the fly about 2 feet above him, it drifted right into his face, and he finally fed! It is a funny feeling to reach down toward the butt of your rod with your off hand to try and strip the fish in and control the line only to realize there is no reel or slack line to assist in the fight… the fish took off downstream and I had to go with him, barreling over big rocks and down riffles. I was just trying to keep my footing as I stomped clumsily after him. Shaun went down below me, and I finally swung the fish into his net after nearly falling in multiple times. It was a very rewarding 16-inch brown, but it felt like a two-footer by the way it fought. With that success to cap off the morning, we moved on to another stream for the afternoon closer to Rapid City.

We fished Rapid Creek, and it amazed me. The creek flows from a dam through a canyon, and the water is remarkably clear. In any given pool I was looking at 5 or more fish over 20 inches; I was fired up. Unfortunately, we had to squeeze our fishing into a short period of time as thunderheads began to form. Though the fish eluded me, Parker was able to catch one hefty brown. We decided to target it New Zealand style, with me walking up high along the bank while Parker and Shaun waded upriver at the same pace as me. We moved slowly upstream, and I spotted this really nice fish about 10 yards ahead of them, a few feet off the bank. Because of their angle, they had trouble seeing the fish, so I directed Parker on his cast, telling him where the fish was holding relative to various colored rocks on the bottom. An awesome episode played out. After spending a few minutes insuring Parker knew exactly where the fish was, I told him to go for it. He laid down a cast and the end of the fly line landed right on the fish’s back, but he didn’t spook. The fly, which landed a few feet up from the fish, swung slightly out to the right and drifted alongside him. Once the beetle got into the fish’s zone, he couldn’t resist—he spun around and started following it downstream. Meanwhile, I was starting to make all sorts of excited comments at the fish’s reaction but tried not to startle Parker into messing it up. Slowly, the fish rose, tipped its nose out of the water, and sipped the fly down, trailing it directly downstream. Parker raised the rod up and the fish exploded, sprinting upstream, then out to the middle, and back and forth. Parker played the fish well, especially as the fly was barely hooked to the side of the fish’s mouth, but we didn’t know that until it fell out as soon as the fish hit the net. It was an electric moment! Thankfully, we got that fish in just as the weather started to roll in. It was the perfect way to conclude one of my favorite days I’ve ever spend on the water with my brother.