Discovering rich variety and hidden fishing gems in western South Dakota
By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
Local guide and professional fisherman Tyler French with a dandy walleye from South Dakota’s Belle Fourche Reservoir. Anglers of all stripes will find a playground in and around Deadwood. (Photo: Ted Takasaki)
It’s a safe bet Wild Bill Hickok would have been better off holding a fly rod on the bank of one of the streams around Deadwood, S.D., than he was sitting in a saloon holding two pairs of aces and eights, the deadman’s hand.
Deadwood still offers plenty of gambling opportunity, but the town also deals out plenty of chances to anglers for a full house of trout, walleye, perch, smallmouth bass and other fish.
Lee Harstad learned what a great spot Deadwood was for fishing when he arrived six years ago to be marketing director of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce.
“Everybody knows about Wild Bill and Deadwood,” said Harstad. “There are so many stories like that, about how lawless it really was. It’s entertaining history, the Wild West and the girls and the guns. But from an outdoor perspective, the biggest thing about Deadwood is that it is a base camp, a perfect place to go on a fishing adventure no matter what the season. Within an hour you can be on walleye, trout or bass.”
At first, Harstad, a native of Grand Forks, North Dakota, felt out of his element. His favorite fishing involved live-bait rigging for walleyes. But the first opportunity that presented itself at Deadwood centered on fly fishing or spinners for trout.
Turns out that gold isn’t the only thing sparkling in legendary Whitewood Creek, which runs through town. Those quick flashes are sunlight playing off the sides of brook, brown and rainbow trout.
“The key,” says Harstad, “is to find the pools, be very patient and quiet.”
Spearfish Creek, which lies a few miles away and higher up in the Black Hills, has “phenomenal trout fishing,” Harstad adds. Rapid Creek has a catch-and-release-only stretch below Pactola Reservoir that is rich in trophy trout. Harstad said overlooking other creeks, like Castle, Crow, Sand, Box Elder and French inside the Black Hills National Forest would be a mistake.
With more than a million acres of public land, there’s no problem finding a stretch of stream where you can ‘play solitaire,’ just you and the fish. Stream fishing is best in spring when water is fresh and flows are good, and again in fall.
If you’d rather fish trout on reservoirs, check out Pactola, Sheridan and Deerfield. They all offer good trout populations. An added bonus is that they lie within the national forest so commercial and housing development is severely limited. Their shores are largely pristine, but they have good boat launches, camp grounds and fishing amenities.
Sheridan is more of the recreational-type lake for boating and water skiing. Pactola has big pike and lake trout in addition to the other trout species. Deerfield is accessible by gravel roads and entirely no-wake so anglers do not have to compete with skiers or other water users. Still, the lake is large enough to hold splake and brook trout.
“The perch population is on a boom at Deerfield, too,” Harstad said. “All area anglers have their favorite spots and anywhere on Deerfield would be mine.”
Fly fishing is done from shorelines. Boaters use spinners and jigs or they troll. The water is crystal clear. Trout like the flashy presentations.
Harstad did a little exploring and eventually found Belle Fourche Reservoir, located within an hour of Deadwood on the prairie surrounding the northern Black Hills near the reservoir’s namesake town in western South Dakota. Created by Orman Dam, Belle Fourche means “beautiful fork.” Harstad calls it a “walleye factory.”
“Limits are common,” he said. A slot limit is in force, which means any fish from 15 to 18 inches must be released. “We’re catching a lot in the slot this year, but seeing some into the mid 20s,” Harstad said.
Harstad feels right at home there. He grew up on North Dakota reservoirs fishing for walleyes with rigs, a tactic that is effective at Belle Fourche. As with all reservoirs, structure normally consists of points. The reservoir level has been down the past couple years, allowing weeds to grow. This year’s weather brought ample water, thus flooding the vegetation. Rigging the weed edges with ‘crawlers or leeches is effective, Harstad noted. A half-ounce weight is usually enough unless the wind deals itself into the game. Belle Fourche is a wide, round lake and storms can come rolling seemingly out of nowhere.
“You can be in for a ride,” Harstad said. On rough days, you might need three-quarters of an ounce to an ounce of weight. “You have to feel the bottom,” he said. Drift or use a trolling motor to stay fairly vertical over the fish.
Other anglers have had luck trolling crankbaits along the contours and over a couple of large flats. Perch and shad are the primary forage fish. The state allows two rods per angler.
“You’ll see guys doing it all,” says Harstad. “I believe the key to that reservoir is being able to fish what you are comfortable with. If you do, you can catch more fish.”
If walleyes aren’t your favorite fish to bet on, deal yourself into some of the reservoir’s yellow perch, catfish or smallmouth bass. Perch are also targeted on winter outings.
Not all Deadwood fun involves water. The area is rich in Western history. Many of the old-time buildings have survived, including Saloon Number 10, where Hickok was gunned down. Hickok’s killer was acquitted by an unofficial miners’ court after lying by claiming Hickok had killed his brother. His killer was later tried in an official court of law and hanged.
Hickok is buried in Deadwood. The townspeople buried Calamity Jane next to him. She had a crush on Hickok, who had been married to someone else.
The area also offers miners’ camps and museums to visit. Just 15 miles away sits the town of Sturgis, the famous motorcycle destination that attracts 500,000 cyclists every August.
In Deadwood, “you’re in the entertainment center of the region,” Harstad said. “We have great restaurants, great hotels, great casinos with a lot of variety in the games and gambling. There are plenty of places to go and eat and enjoy fine dining. And bring a fishing pole. It is a great base camp, a great place to hang out.”
Odds are you’ll have more fun than Wild Bill, even if you are… holding aces and eights.