In South Dakota, as that state’s department of tourism says, the fishing season never closes.
On my last early-winter trip to the prairie state to photograph big-game animals, I made doubly sure to pack requisite fishing gear to take full advantage of that continuous season. While my main objective was to capture images of American pronghorns, bison, deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, I also relished the thought of hiking into seldom-fished, gin-clear mountain streams to angle for hard-fighting rainbow and brown trout.
Southwestern South Dakota’s winter weather has little in common with Minnesota’s as dominant Chinook winds usher in warm, dry air from the southwest, sometimes raising winter high temperatures into the 60s. Mornings can still be brisk, though.
My better half, Katie, and I were lodging near Hill City, where it’s common to awake to 20 degree temperatures and skim ice, forcing one to layer up against the chill, only to discard those insulating garments a few hours later when the temperature spikes into the 50s or higher. Certainly, downright balmy conditions for Minnesotans used to sub-zero readings and fishing through feet of lake ice.
Regardless of the weather, I doubted I’d see another angler on the mountain and was convinced the fish would be ravenous.
After a few days spent chasing critters with the camera, I embarked on my initial Black Hills trout expedition. While I’m an avid traditionalist when it comes to anything outdoors, I left my almost-never-used fly rods at home and instead opted for ultra-light spinning tackle and a kit of tiny, so-called Mepp’s single hook Trout Killer lures.
I reasoned that the streams would wind through dense pine forests, offering little room to work a fly outfit. Plus, my fly-fishing skills were as rusty as a farm grove 1940 Ford truck.
Also, I needed a bantam outfit that would carry easily with my camera and a pair of lenses as wildlife and scenic opportunities can be numerous on the mountain trails.
I guided my truck up a switchback mountain road and parked at a small trailhead, mere steps from trout water. The stream flowed down the mountain into a 50-yard-wide pond, then disappeared into a culvert. It reappeared on the other side of the road, where it briefly widened again, then coursed swiftly along over chunks of granite at the bottom of a precipitous cliff.
After exiting the truck, I slipped into hip waders and hiked 30 yards to the pond. I tied on a diminutive red-and-green spinner and rocketed a long, arcing cast into the glassy water. I had reeled nearly two-thirds of the way back when a silvery missile shot out of the flooded shoreline grass and slammed my lure.
While the trout approached trophy size, it wasn’t anywhere near as large as the pike I’d been catching back home before ice-up. However, I was surprised and delighted at the fish’s ferocity as it readily tore line from the little reel.
The experience reminded me of wilderness grayling fishing. Grayling are an arctic trout, and it’s not unusual to have the biggest specimen in a pool strike a lure on the first cast, just like the rainbow I was now battling.
After a few blistering, zig-zagging runs, the big trout tired, and I whisked the fish out of the water. I paused to admire its bright silvery-blue and pink sides and then deposited it into my impromptu creel, a tear-drop daypack lined with a plastic grocery store bag. Then, I headed up the mountain trail to find other wide spots in the stream.
The next stop up the gently rising mountain produced two more trout on a half-dozen casts, and there was an even bigger prize, a bighorn ram. As I was adding the second fish to my creel, I heard footfalls across the stream and was astonished to see a bighorn sheep munching grass. The sheep sported a radio collar, making him one of many that the South Dakota Game and Fish track throughout their range.
I eased my camera system out and captured a few frames before the animal nonchalantly scaled the nearly vertical wall adjacent to the stream and vanished into the blackness of the woods.
Even if I didn’t land another fish, my maiden Dakota trout expedition was a rousing success. I caught and released several small trout and landed one more keeper before descending the trail to my truck, where I photographed and cleaned my catch.
With trout fishing still fresh in my mind’s eye and a strong warm front pushing up temperatures, this may be the ideal time to experience the winter catch-and-release trout season in snowy southeastern Minnesota. The chances are good that anglers will be few and the fish hungry.
Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman who has been a freelance outdoors writer and photographer for 21 years. He’s been a Mankato resident since 1979.