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Finding joy in the half-light of the canyon and knowing when to quit

Returning to Spearfish Canyon after two years away can make a guy smile.
Returning to Spearfish Canyon after two years away can make a guy smile.

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

Sometimes, one is enough.

Or should be.

A cookie, for instance, or a scoop of ice cream, or a hot cup of Irish breakfast tea with a splash of half and half.

Sometimes, one is all you really need.

That applies to hunting and fishing, too. Sometimes you get your limit of satisfaction by bagging a single rooster pheasant, especially if it’s a wild bird flushed after a long stretch of tough-cover tracking by a good dog you trained yourself.

Or a single drake mallard that comes to decoys and call on a light breeze with its green head gone fluorescent in the early-morning light.

One is enough. More than enough. Or should be.

That’s what I was thinking Sunday evening partway up Spearfish Canyon after I’d caught that beautiful brown trout on a dry fly in Spearfish Creek.

“That’s enough,” I said aloud, as I stood and studied a productive-looking run, where other trout were feeding a relatively short cast away. “I asked for one trout, and I got it.”

The brown trout and the Hippie Stomper
The brown trout and the Hippie Stomper

As I turned to walk back toward the pickup, I remembered what my old pal Don Bluhm once said: “Don’t ruin the good by searching for the great.”

Or something like that. The passing of years can make knowing exact quotes difficult, for the one who spoke them and the one who quotes them.

A retired Milwaukee Journal travel writer, Bluhm was talking about fly fishing in particular, and how we sometimes err in searching for an even better experience on a stream when the one we’ve had or are having should be good enough. Plenty good enough.

So what was plenty good about that one brown trout on Sunday? For starters, it was the first trout I’ve caught up Spearfish Canyon for two years. That’s because it was the first time I’ve been up Spearfish Canyon at all for two years.

Two years. Imagine that. Fifty miles away from a gorgeous canyon and blue-ribbon trout stream, without a single visit. Until Sunday.

The joys of getting outdoors again

Those who follow this blog or have seen comments from me on one social media platform or another probably know that I’ve had some strange health issues over the last year and a half. I didn’t get out of town much for a year. There were some days, some weeks, when I didn’t get out of the house much, save a stroll through the neighborhood, a less-frequent hike up the Skyline Drive trails, a little yard work, or an occasional brief trip with a fly rod to Rapid Creek here in Rapid City.

I’ve been doing better and getting out more in the last four or five months. And I’ve been reacquainting myself with favored outdoor spots, including the Missouri River at Chamberlain, largemouth bass dams in Lyman and Jones counties, and walleye-and-smallmouth-bass haunts in Angostura Reservoir near Hot Springs.

I added a couple more on Sunday when I gave my wife a ride up to Bear Butte Gardens northeast of Sturgis, not far from the sacred Bear Butte itself. Bear Butte Gardens is an organic farm where Mary was helping her chef pal M.J. Adams prepare a delicious farm-to-table organic meal for 48 guests.

I didn’t stay for the $100-a-plate (I’m sure worth every penny) multi-course meal. But since I was up that way anyway I drove north and west to Belle Fourche Reservoir with vague plans to cast for walleyes or smallmouth bass.

I hadn’t been to Belle Fourche Reservoir for two years, either. So just driving up there past the butte, through sprawling grasslands, the town of Nisland, and on to the reservoir was in itself a rewarding time at the wheel.

Bell Fourche, more commonly called Orman for the dam that creates it, is an irrigation reservoir, subject to dramatic highs and lows. And it’s getting down pretty low these days, with the temperatures up, the fields dry, and irrigation canals still running lots of water. On top of the low water levels in the reservoir, a gusty northwest wind had the water badly muddied at a couple of spots where I usually fish.

Not to worry, though. I also brought my fly fishing gear. So I headed west and south to Spearfish. There I checked our three or four casting spots on Spearfish Creek in town but wasn’t inspired to rig up and fish. Instead, I wandered on foot through the city park and paid a visit to the always-inspiring D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery before driving up Spearfish Canyon.

And finally, after two years, a trip up the canyon

When I left Spearfish on U.S. Highway 14A, the temperature was 75 degrees. It was 68 when I stopped at a familiar fishing spot about halfway to Savoy. By that point, though, I was thinking maybe I didn’t need to fish. It felt good enough just to be up the canyon again after a two-year absence.

I sat at the spot under looming limestone walls and remembered a few things. Good things, mostly. Things worth remembering. Then I drove up to another stretch of the creek I had fished often in the past. When I stepped out of the pickup there, I heard the squeaky chirps of an osprey and located the bird on a nest in a tree near the top of the canyon.

Moments later I saw another osprey in flight nearby, and soon it swooped low over the highway to encourage a turkey vulture to leave the area, which it did. Standing there along the creek, as the call of the fish hawk reached me above the background music of rushing water, I felt fully alive and truly blessed to be back in a place I love so dearly and have missed so much for two years.

A fallen tree creates a small waterfall on Spearfish Creek up the canyon.
A fallen tree creates a small waterfall on Spearfish Creek up the canyon.

The light was muted and beautiful, as it becomes in what author Norman Maclean calls the “half-light of the canyon” later in the day. At that time, Maclean writes, “all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”

The sounds I heard, of course, were not of the Big Blackfoot out in Montana. They were of Spearfish Creek, a smaller stream that nonetheless has a beckoning spirit and inspiring beauty. And the sounds of that creek, too, evoke the feeling of the four-count rhythm of the cast and the hope that a fish will rise.

And, wouldn’t you know it, just then a fish rose to take a bug on the surface of the creek 10 or 15 yards in front of me. Also rising was my desire to do more than look and listen. I wanted to feel the rod in my hand, the four-count rhythm flexing up my arm and power of the water moving against my legs.

And maybe even more.

“If I could just catch one trout, that would be nice. Just one. That’s all,” I said aloud.

I hadn’t brought my chest waders, but I did throw in my hip boots. They were just tall enough to get me partway across the creek (the hip boots are uninsulated, which reminded me of how cold that creek runs up in the canyon), where I could make a few casts into promising water.

Trusting the old Hippie Stomper

I already had a big dry fly called a Hippie Stomper tied on my beloved 4-weight Sage rod and Ross reel. The Hippie Stomper is a big, weird fly that really doesn’t accurately imitate anything in nature. I often use it more as an indicator fly (OK, OK, sort of a bobber), with a smaller dry fly or sinking nymph tied on behind or below it.

The Hippie Stomper serves well as an indicator for a strike on other, smaller flies. But sometimes fish hit it, too. And sometimes they hit it with a great deal of vigor, seemingly to fit the size of the fly.

I tied a drop leader off the hook of the Hippie stomper and tied a bead-head nymph to the end of the drop leader. Then I made a short cast. Then a longer one. Then, with some back casts, I started to find the four-count rhythm and the physical-yet-meditative connection with the stream.

Which is why, of course, fly fishing is as much art and zen as it is an outdoor sport.

On the fifth or sixth drift, a nice brown trout rose from two or three feet below the surface, opened its mouth, and sucked in the Hippie Stomper. I raised the rod, set the hook and we were off.

I’d forgotten my net. But things went perfectly. The fish fought hard but predictably. My 5-pound leader allowed me to lean on the fish a bit, work it to the surface and slide it over within reach. I grabbed it with my first attempt, held it just long enough to unhook the fly, take a couple of pictures with my smartphone and release the fish.

The release is the second-best part of fly fishing, barely behind the catch. And when I relaxed my fingers, the trout flipped its tail and disappeared into deeper water off toward the far bank. I sighed with pleasure, rearranged the fly rig, and made a couple more casts before slogging over to the bank, up the slope, and out to the pickup.

Kevin Woster

There was still enough light to fish for another half an hour. And I walked downstream to another spot, where five or six trout could be seen feeding near the middle of the creek.

The water was shallow enough for my hip boots. And I could easily reach the fish with a cast. And I was almost in the water when I thought of Bluhm’s wise words and remembered what I’d wished for earlier: one fish. Just one.

I stood and watched the trout feed for a while, then went back to the pickup, took off the hip boots and packed away the fly gear. As the half light of the canyon continued to fade, I lingered there and listened to the music of the creek and the call of the osprey.

Sometimes, one is more than enough. Sometimes, it’s perfect.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.