It’s a magical experience, catching a wild brown trout on a fly while wading an open-water creek in early December.
That’s true anywhere. But it’s especially magical in South Dakota.
It’s also an extreme aberration from the typical image people have of December angling in this state. Which is, admittedly, mostly hard-water stuff. Really hard water. As in frozen solid.
Ice anglers love winter fishing, of course. And for them, mid-December is really just the start of things. Short-pole things. Peering-down-into-ice-hole things. Pulling-up-fish things. You know, the kind of things that can make a frigid winter afternoon pass pretty quickly for a warmly attired, appropriately equipped angler.
Ice fishing is a fine outdoors pastime. I’ve done it, written about it and admired it. But it’s not my thing. So when the season of really hard water arrives, I’m susceptible to a little angling withdrawal. Winter blues, even.
That’s where winter fly fishing comes in. And in Rapid City, it can come in just about any day during December, January and February when the temperature climbs above freezing, the wind isn’t too bad and there’s a little sun on the water.
“It’s actually my favorite time to fish,” says Hans Stephenson, a fly tosser extraordinaire and owner of Dakota Angler & Outfitter here in town.
The fly shop settles down a bit in the winter, so Hans has a few more opportunities for time on — or, more accurately, in — the water, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends or family. The other day it was family — his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Irene, and his brother, Karl.
“I got to fish for an hour or so with Irene in the backpack, before we sort of transitioned up to the park,” Hans says. “And to be able to just leave the house and wander down to the creek to have an outdoor experience like that is really priceless.”
Priceless indeed. Pretty amazing, too, when you stop to think about it.
Rapid Creek is an extraordinary resource, for aesthetics and municipal water and irrigation. Not being a numbers guy, I just can’t imagine how you would put a value on all that. Add in the wild trout fishery that avails itself all year round and it does seem priceless.
It’s also accessible in a way that few natural resources of its quality and nature are. From my front door, I’m five minutes from the nearest wild brown trout, and basically 10 minutes from any productive pool or riffle in town.
Unlike some of the moodier varieties of fish — largemouth bass, you know who you are — that get sluggish in the winter or suffer anxiety attacks with every change in the barometer, stream brown trout are more psychologically stable. And they can be ready to hit when the spirit moves them, any time of the year under a variety of conditions.
If the weather really cooperates, as it did last week when it hit the 60s, December fly fishing can seem a lot like early fall. That’s why I wore waders and carried a fly rod and wide-brimmed hat when I made my first significant foray out of the house after some skin-cancer surgery.
I was in the water faster than the time it would have taken to pick up a few groceries or get a drive-through burger. And after the first spot didn’t work out, I found active trout at the next.
Crazy active, I mean. Once hooked, they shot up through the surface like emerging missiles, performed ostentatious aerial maneuvers and skidded crazily back into the creek.
I held them only long enough to unhook the fly and lower them back into the water. They were gone in a flash.
Of course, it was beautiful. It always is. And there’s plenty more of that to come this winter.
“Really, the weather opportunities throughout the winter are fairly plentiful,” Hans says. “Last winter was colder than a lot of them. We didn’t have as many warm days as we typically do. But I had some really good days when it was right around freezing. If there’s some sun and not a lot of wind, it can be surprisingly good.”
So, a gentle wind, a little sun and an acrobatic winter brown trout on a fly.
Go ahead, try to put a price on that.