Spring is here! Spring is here! Spring is here!!!
All winter I have been tying flies and pouring over maps for places to hit once spring and summer hit. Once the waters looked good I had to get out. We had some false starts which is about right for Colorado and the front range. Mother nature has a way of playing an evil game of "psyche". I was able to get in a few days between snow storms.
Those early spring snow falls are welcome as water for the streams up to the point that I start swearing about all the mucky slushy snow. My patience is moderate at best when it comes to season changes and weather.
Through the winter I did quite a bit of daydreaming of fishing in the warmer season. Of those places there was one place specifically that I was looking forward to hitting. Now we all have those places that we fish that are absolutely sworn secret places. This place I am about to tell you about is not so much a secret as it is a place you could easily find yourself going to if you made a little effort and made the trip a destination. In addition to the great fishing, there is also beautiful scenery and amazing amounts of wildlife. No, not Wyoming, or Montana, I'm talking about South Dakota.
Specifically I'm talking about Custer State Park. We went this year just before Memorial day and it was absolutely a dream get away. The trip for us was a little more than a 6 hour drive to get there. Our first trip there was two years ago in mid June. Both times that we have been there were just great. There are plenty of accommodations in the park for whatever floats your boat. Tent or RV Camping, Cabins and even a lodge. We did the cabin for this trip and it was perfect. The Blue Bell Campground had RVs, Tents sites and wonderfully clean and cozy cabins. There is a small store near by where you can get what you need and even buy your fishing license. There's beer and some essentials as well as a modest amount of tourist souvenirs. The cabins are pretty much, low-end "Glamping". Bunk beds and a table but power to charge your phone or to run your portable dvd player if you are 7 year old and can't live without an episode of Scooby Doo. So you are a long way from roughing it and having to hike into a back woods. It's nice to have a shower and for a family trip it is perfect.
There are only a couple of streams in Custer State Park to fish. The one that stands out the most and that I spent my days on this trip was French Creek. I got the 3 day fishing license and could have probably added an additional day or six. There is a lot of stream to cover. This stream seems to be everywhere in the park. I winds around in so many different directions and covers so much of the park. I got disoriented trying to figure it out. It was almost spooky that every time I saw a stream it was this same one in a place you didn't expect it. But how? I think this is the most winding stream I have ever fished.
Day one I didn't wander far - Getting Started
Blue Bell Picnic Area
Just on the main road before the turn off to the Blue Bell Camp ground is a public picnic area that I probably would have normally avoided assuming it was probably over pressured. But I hadn't seen anyone on the water at all and it was as good a place as any to start. I worked my way down stream and then back up again. That day I caught several really nice brownies while my wife and son went driving around the park. The fish were not over abundant but were exactly where you thought they would be and occasionally you found more than one hanging out in the same neighborhood.
Day two - Deeper Into the Park.
After a morning of touring about we headed a little deeper into the park. I brought my rod along as we drove through the park and saw the herds of bison, white tailed deer, wild turkeys, coyotes. prairie dogs and marmots. ON day one my wife and son had found the "Horse campground" while I was fishing. She wanted to take me there to see that part of the park again. Horse Campground is basically a very nice, special campground for equestrians.
It was just early afternoon when we rolled up. I noted a few spin casters in the creek here and there. It had the atmosphere of a typical municipal campground only with lots of RVs and horse trailers. If you ever wanted to watch a horse get "shoed" this would be where I would send you. French Creek drives right through the middle of the campground. But don't let that stop you from fishing it. I walked a small portion of the creek here and caught a few more browns including a fish that was easily 14-15". From there we moved on to another place that I had been told by a local would be a great place to drop into. He was right as rain.
This portion of French Creek is called "Fisherman's Flats". The Flats is actually the only "open area camping" in the park. It is designed to be a 2 to 3 day pack trip that you can take and hike from one end to the other. Fortunately for us there is also a way to drive up to a trail head and hike down to the creek. It is a nice little hike (I'm guessing about a mile) that drops you down into a valley. I hiked down into this area at roughly 2:30pm and when I got close to the water I could see fish rising and jumping at bugs. I only fished about 100 yards of water on this jaunt but what great water it was. Lots of really good sized browns and few brook trout too. I ended up catching at least 13 fish in the short time I had. Good quantity but also great sizes all the way up to 13- 14". The local who keyed me onto the spot said he was always surprised that he hardly ever sees anyone else fishing it very much. This was hands down the best day of fishing on the trip. One warning though...the hike out is all up hill and seems longer than the hike down.
Also be on the lookout for rattlesnakes and poison ivy. I saw no snakes but there was plenty of the latter.
Day three - That Creek is Everywhere
We took a quick day trip into the town of Hot Springs, SD. If you go there the only saving grace of the town is the Mammoth dig site that we did go and see. It is a pretty lame little town. Struggling and trying too hard to be charming but missing the mark. We were less than impressed with the town. After a bad lunch we returned to the state park and I decided to take a hike and fish French Creek where it passed near the campground. A few days prior my son and I had taken a short walk and found that our cabin was really close to the creek. I walked the short trail and in a very short time I was on the water and had my first 9" brown in hand. The view in this back area was just beautiful. Cliffs that loom up and the creek just winds around. I only caught 2 or 3 more fish in this section. It didn't seem to have the population. This seemed odd to me as it was actually quite off the beaten path. Oh well not every day on the water is hand over fist catching.
Some Closing thoughts
While I was there I saw very few fly fishermen and I was the only tenkara guy. We had been here before and I had an even better trip than last time. It was the week before Memorial day but when we were there in June of 2014 it was only slightly busier.
I think getting outside of your local area every chance you can is one of the best things you can do for your fishing. I do love my Colorado places to fish but getting into these new waters I saw that not all fish are the same. A few times I found myself missing the strike but getting it with a patient presentation a second or third cast. Maybe I am imagining it but the fish just seemed to behave slightly different to what I had gotten used to in my home waters. The change of scenery is always nice and it gets you out of your old habits and makes you have to think a little. Getting to fish a new place is what keeps it all interesting.
The population of South Dakota is relatively small with very few large cities. There is a lot of tourist traffic of course to Mt. Rushmore and the surrounding area. Finding Custer State Park was a real score for us as a family. It has a lot to offer and is very much overlooked. I don't expect this to change. You have to look for these places though. You have to get out of the mind set that everyone else is following. I share this location with you in the hopes that you might actually make the trip yourself, enjoy the great fishing and give the local economy a little of your support. As a family we are considering making Custer an annual trip. Maybe next year I'll see you on the banks of French Creek.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a cuddly dog, and a very lucky cat. Dennis is an avid minimalist, wood craftsman, curious tinkerer and learner and most notably a deeply focused tenkara angler.