There's an internal struggle that any outdoor writer goes through in trying to balance the joy of sharing something secret and special against the knowledge that by doing so, you may ruin the very seclusion you covet so much.
I felt that turmoil when I found my new favorite fishing spot in the Black Hills last weekend, and felt a writer's compulsion to impart the sense of wonder that comes from being in such a unique setting with such hot fishing action.
And then I thought, well, you know, anyone who has visited Custer State Park and glanced at a park map already knows about my latest and greatest discovery, for it appears in black-and-white right there on the map. It's called the Grace Coolidge Walk-In Fishing Area, and despite its obviousness on the map, the very nature of the fishing area may keep those less-determined from experiencing it.
The fishing area is essentially a 3-mile stretch of walking trail that follows along Grace Coolidge Creek — a narrow, meandering waterway that is like many small streams that cut through the forests and rocky spires of the Black Hills.
But what makes this spot different is that the trail is dotted with six small man-made dams that each forms a small fishing pool. The trail runs between Center Lake on the north and a trail head to the south not far from the Custer Park offices.
The fact the ponds are so spread out requires an angler to pack up all their gear and walk the trail to get from fishing hole to fishing hole. The hike itself is pure bliss, since the trail is sparsely used and it's far more common to see a heron or deer or snake or chipmunk that any other human being.
As such, the fishing holes get very little pressure, and they are teeming with trout that are regularly stocked by wildlife officials, according to Custer Visitor Services Coordinator Craig Pugsley.
But I did not know that as I geared up Sunday with two fishing rods wound tightly together with rubber bands, a backpack with a small tackle box and breakfast bar inside, and a small cooler filled with ice, a couple drinks and a box of small nightcrawlers.
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The initial 8-minute hike from Center Lake to the first fishing hole might deter anyone with poor shoes or weak legs. The trail starts with an immediate climb and is pretty rocky. And it takes a keen eye to spot the first of the fishing holes, each marked by only a small concrete dam. (One tip: listen for running water and then stop and have a look around and you'll likely see the concrete dams nearby.)
But the payoff was instant. My first cast with a crawler on a tiny hook into the green, murky waters was met by the hard strike of a rainbow trout. Being caught so much off guard, I did not set the hook and the 15-inch trout flopped back into the pool before I could swing him onto shore.
A few more casts and a few bites later, I switched to a silver spinner and soon had my prize: a nice 14-inch brook trout on the line and into the cooler. But then, as fast as the action began, it was over: the trout had made me, and despite switching lures and trying several different retrieval speeds, it was time to move to the next spot.
The second segment may be the most scenic walk I've ever taken (even rivaling the trails I've walked through the Costa Rican rainforest). The babbling brook passes from side to side along the trail, requiring hikers to hop over it or make their way along downed trees or rocks set up as little bridges by park employees.
Ten minutes later, I saw the second pond, and it was breathtaking. A huge rock wall shoots up over the dam, creating a cathedral-like feel, and a deep fishing hole lay just above it. Fishing here was harder, and it took numerous casts and just the right feel to land my second fish, a smaller but equally tasty rainbow trout.
The third leg of my trip took 13 minutes of hard but mostly downhill hiking, but again paid full dividends. The third dam creates a wide pool flanked by a rock face and tall pines with a small open area for fishing or picnicking on the shore. Fish were jumping madly but they may have wanted flies and not my spinner.
Still, I hung in there and caught another keeper trout. After that, I just sat a while and soaked in the scenery and solitude, breathing the freshest pine-tinged air to be found anywhere.
And with that, I packed up my gear and began hiking back to the trail head. In all, it took 25 minutes to get back to Center Lake, and I probably walked a mile or so in the process. It was quite an adventure, and one I recommend to all, though, in all honesty, it would be nice if none of you were out on the trail or fishing in the ponds the next time I return!