(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2005)
At the mouth of South Dakota's Spearfish Canyon, US--14A slips between the cliffs of sandstone and limestone, tempting motorists to follow. Those who do quickly join a game of tag with tumbling Spearfish Creek. The scenic byway traces the canyon's bottom, joining, leaving and reuniting with the Black Hills stream throughout the trip.
Rounding one of the bends, the sightseers soon come upon a scene that immediately feels familiar, even if it's their first trip to a canyon stream. An unmistakable glint swirls over a man's head as he stands thigh-deep in the clear water. His arm swoops in orchestrated arcs around a hat fuzzy with tiny tufts tucked around its band. The form is mythic: Even the most committed urban types recognize a fly fisherman at a glance.
Spearfish Canyon drivers often slow down at the sight. Many pull over to watch or snap a photo. Even if they have never fished, some dream of what it's like to wade these waters amid the glow of autumn's foliage.
If Spearfish Creek held not a single trout, fly anglers still might come to cast a line. They belong in the picture. Fortunately, the stream offers some of the best creek fishing in North America.
No trout are native to the Black Hills, but three species have adapted splendidly to Spearfish Canyon since they were first stocked in the 1880s. The D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery in nearby Spearfish tells the history of Black Hills trout, and has ponds teeming with large fish.
Trout in the canyon now reproduce in self-sustaining populations, so the creek is no longer stocked. Each 100 yards of stream holds about 300 trout, about the densest concentration found anywhere in the Black Hills. These wild trout are more vividly colored than their hatchery cousins. Smarter, too. Anglers love the challenge of snagging these fish that have spent their lives in the wild, hunting meals of insects.
Dave Gamet, 43, manager of the Dakota Angler fly shop in Rapid City, has fished for trout in streams throughout the Black Hills since he was a teen. But even though the years have slipped by, Spearfish Canyon has never lost its mystique. "Everybody seems to have an idea of what it looks like," Gamet says. "Some say it reminds them of a place in Italy, or Germany. I say it's a unique place on its own terms."
Frank Lloyd Wright called the canyon's harmonic convergence of rock and water and woods the "Spearfish ensemble." Wright's travels took him to America's most enchanting landscapes, including numerous canyons, as he sought out locations that would inform his organic approach to architecture. After a visit to Spearfish Canyon in September 1935, he declared it most miraculous of all, better even than the Grand Canyon.
Sheer rock walls soaring 1,000 feet make the first impression, in reds, yellows and grays of limestone and sandstones. Ledges and plumes of aspens and birch punctuate steep slopes carpeted by pines and spruce. Side canyons beckon. Light cascades of droplets drift from hanging gorges. The air is fresh with whiffs of pine and morning mist. Rushing sounds stem from a stream that's in a hurry. The stream alternates between placid pools and plunges over rock ledges, rapids and beaver dams.
Fall finds the canyon at its scenic summit. The Black Hills are so named because dense forests of spruce and ponderosa pines appear black in the distance. Coniferous darkness juxtaposes against paper birch and aspen stands, their pale bark shining and radiant golden leaves quivering under constant breezes. Yellow leaves of willow shrubs brighten the stream banks. It almost seems the leaves could glow in the dark.
For a veteran angler like Gamet, the experience is fully realized by standing in the stream with a fly rod in hand. Wearing waders and leaning slightly forward to brace against the cold current, fishermen arch hypnotic loops of line that fall silently on the surface. It's all about finding balance.
The fisherman lets his expectations fade and slips into an easy rhythm. A blip appears on the water ahead. A half-moment passes. It dawns upon him that the blip is where his fly, now disappeared, had been drifting on the surface. He jerks the bending rod, heavy with a hooked trout. The line spools off, setting the reel to hum a fury of "zhrrrZHRRRzhrrrZHRRRrrr."
He reels in the fish, and its beauty comes into focus. All three trout species in Spearfish Canyon are handsome. Brown trout are speckled with brown dots merging into red. Rainbow trout are streaked with a red band from gill to tail. Brook trout boast a deep blue body and mottled dorsal.
Trout feel moist, cold and firm to the touch. The fisherman gently extracts the hook without lifting the fish from the water. He nudges the trout forward and watches it dart off, leaving the possibility of an encounter with another angler someday on the stream.
Come evening, which arrives early and lingers long, the canyon dims into deep purple hues, and the first stars blaze in the narrow band of sky visible between canyon walls. Cars pass only occasionally now. Down on the stream, concentric circles riddle the surface as trout sip mayflies from the surface. Soon the last fly fisher will wade from the water and leave Spearfish Canyon to the darkness, the trout and the sound of the rushing stream.