The image is unmistakable: A man in waders and wide-brimmed hat stands midstream, casting a line in a graceful arc and waiting for a trout to rise. Whether you want to stand beside him, or just take in the autumn colors in South Dakota's Spearfish Canyon, now is the time to head for the Black Hills. The river is waiting.
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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.

Spearfish Canyon fly fishing
Spearfish Canyon fly fishing

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.

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.

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.

For More Black Hills Fun...

Spy A Stampede Witness thousands of thundering hooves as cowboys round up 1,500 wild bison in late September or early Octobe at Custer State Park.

Ride the Rails The 1880 Train puffs through the spruce and pine forests from the old town of Hill City to Mount Rushmore.

Pedal the Mickelson Trail The 114-mile bike path snakes through mountain towns, rocky tunnels and parts of the Black Hills National Forest.

Drive the Norbeck The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway includes the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, with its turns and views of Mount Rushmore.

Visit Crazy Horse Mount Rushmore isn't the only massive monument worth seeing. The Crazy Horse Memorial showcases Native American culture with museums and a mountaintop likeness of Crazy Horse under construction.