Alone on Center Lake in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, the freshly fallen 6 inches of snow from the previous day’s storm creates a pristine, unspoiled canvas from shoreline to shoreline that swallows all sound. The silence is as beautiful as the snow covers pine trees and rock outcrops.
The lake is small enough that I don’t have to walk far before starting to drill holes in order to drop jigs under the ice and lure in fish. It’s my first time on the lake, on the hunt for one of a handful of trout species stocked in the lake by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.
I seek the tiger trout, a cross between a brook and brown trout. The fish occurs naturally in streams where there is habitat overlap but is a rare find as little spawning occurs between the two species.
It’s a synthetic experience, catching a hybrid cold-water fish through the ice, one that was bred and raised in captivity.
Then again, the same could be said of the stocked brown, rainbow, lake and brook trout in this region. Brown trout are not native to North America, and as far as ranges of wild American stream trout, the Black Hills is closer to the native cutthroat trout range than that of the brook trout.
I’ve cut a few holes along a rocky shoreline edge. Reservoir stream trout find their only structural habitat as shorelines in many cases, so drilling close to shore is a good starting point. It doesn’t take long, and I’m marking fish keenly interested in my bait.
After a tease up and down with a strong follow, the fish can’t resist and tugs the jig loaded with red-dyed fly larvae.
A feisty rainbow trout streaks up the hole. It’s a good, thick fish, with a bright-pink stripe down its side, a chrome head and black spots across its back. The fish is gorgeous and will make the grade to be included in a batch of smoked fish.
I trudge to another hole I’ve drilled slightly deeper, and a pair of marks materialize at the bottom of my display and then quickly close the distance to my falling jig.
With catlike behavior, the trout don’t want to be spoonfed their meal at a standstill, but would rather chase down and attack their prey.
I take the jig away rapidly, and one closes quickly and arcs my rod tip down. I set the hook, and a small tiger trout emerges from the top of the hole. The fish is a collection of solid copper, gold and pewter, with mahogany splotches. I admire the fish before releasing the colorful fellow to fight another day.
After some exposure to the area as a mentor for the Rapid City Club for Boys Hooked on Hardwater event held each February, I’ve had a chance to hook each of the trout for which the area is known.
Lake trout can be caught in Pactola and Deerfield Reservoirs. Tiger trout can be caught in Center Lake. Rainbow, brown, and brook trout can be caught in a number of local waters. Smallmouth bass, black crappie, bluegill, northern pike, yellow perch and walleye are a few of the warm-water species that can also be found in the area. There is a great deal of fish diversity in a scenic location.
The Black Hills is a popular tourist destination in summer for vacationing families that wish to see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, or Custer State Park. It is a hunter’s paradise, with opportunities to hunt elk, whitetail and mule deer and wild turkey, plus the stocked trout species mentioned earlier for the angler. The Hills are visited less frequently in winter, which keeps the area flying under the radar as an ice fishing destination.
Craig Oyler, a local fishing guide in the area, knows the Hills are a special place.
“It’s a sportsman’s paradise. I wouldn’t want to live in any other place,” he tells me.
Oyler is particularly fond of the lake trout, a species he targets and helps others catch. He has developed a plastic bait named in his honor and distributed in the area.
“There’s just something about catching lake trout up here, in deep and shallow water, that is unlike anywhere else,” he said. “With so many fish opportunities, the ice angling interest continues to grow which helps local resorts and bait shops. It’s a good thing for the area and a great experience for a visiting angler.”
Back on Center Lake, the light is fading but the trout continue to come through, attracted by the flash of a silver jig. I’ll finish with a few fish for the smoker and the appreciation of vibrant color against a plush, ivory backdrop.
The Black Hills have many secrets to share if you’ll take the time to explore her many corners.