Al Campbell, Field Editor

July 28th, 2003

Custer State Park - part 6
By Al Campbell

For most of us, that summer get-away trip involves a family vacation of sorts. If we're really lucky, we might even get a chance to enjoy some fishing while on the trip. But, how often do we get to ombine family vacations and fishing trips? It doesn't happen very often does it? Let's face it, a couple of days on the Bighorn River would be something like a dream come true for most of us. But, our families might have a different opinion of their stay in Fort Smith while we're enjoying the excellent fishing. So, we do the right thing and sacrifice our true desires for our families.

Sound familiar? I'm sure it does for most people, but it doesn't have to be that way. You could take the family to a place where they wouldn't run out of things to do or places to see if your vacation lasted all summer. They could wander in meadows with elk and bison, or tour art collections and a collection of tourist traps that is probably unequaled anywhere on earth. How about prospecting for gold or a quiet walk in the forest?

I could be referring to the Rocky Mountains, upper Michigan or northern Minnesota, but I'm not. I'm talking about one of my "home waters" destinations in the Black Hills of South Dakota, specifically Custer State Park. Add the excellent fishing you can enjoy in the park, and you've found the ideal summer vacation spot.

Custer State Park (And Local Area) Lakes and Streams

Regional Map

    1. Lakota Lake -
  • Brook Trout, Northern Pike, Rainbow Trout, stocked with 2lb fish.
    2. Horsethief Lake -
  • Rainbow Trout, Perch
    3. Sylvan Lake -
  • Rainbow Trout
    4. Center Lake -
  • Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout
    5. Bismark Lake -
  • Rainbow Trout, Perch
    6. Stockade Lake -
  • Rainbow Trout, Perch, Crappie, Northern Pike, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass
    7. Legion Lake -
  • Rainbow Trout
    8. Grace Coolidge Walk in Fishing Area -
  • Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout
    9. French Creek Walk in Fishing Area -
  • Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout

If you prefer trout, you'll enjoy the rainbow trout fishing in the lakes and streams of the park. All of the lakes are stocked with rainbows, some of them reaching several pounds. If something other than rout is on your list, you'll also find bass, perch, northern pike and crappie in some of the lakes. In either case, if you're going to fish a lake, a float tube or small boat will be helpful but not a necessity.

Lakota Lake just north of the park is stocked with two-pound and larger trout every year for those who want to battle a big one. It also has some scrappy northern pike, but it is managed for trout. You can keep only one trout from this lake since it's being managed as a trophy fishery. Damselfly and dragonfly nymphs cast near the weeds will bring heavy hits during the mid-summer months.

If you're a brookie addict like me, Iron Creek (it flows into and out of Lakota Lake) and the upper sections of Battle Creek (near the town of Keystone and Mount Rushmore) are loaded with them. They aren't real big, but they are real willing and sometimes that turns a dismal day into a shining one.

Center Lake

If numbers of fish are your goal, try Horsethief, Center, Legion or Bismark lakes. These lakes are full of hungry rainbows that average about 12 inches. You shouldn't have any trouble catching a lot of fish in a couple of hours. Several years ago, while teaching a fly-fishing seminar for a local youth group, I caught six trout in seven casts on Bismark Lake. I was trying to show them how effective fly-fishing in a lake can be, but hadn't counted on the enthusiastic fish. I had a lot of youngsters who were eager to try fly-fishing after that short lesson.

Sylvan Lake is nestled in a tiny pocket on the top of a mountain. It's lined by towering rock walls on three sides. Ever popular with rock climbers and swimmers, most people get lost in the lake's stunning beauty and forget that there are fish to catch. Most of the rainbows in this lake are about 12 inches, but some top four pounds for the lucky angler. A variety of nymphs and wet flies produce trout throughout the summer. While you're fishing, the non-fishers in your family will enjoy sun bathing, hiking, picnicking and swimming.

Stockade Lake

If a mixed bag of fish is your idea of an ideal day on the water, try wetting a line in Stockade Lake. Towering rock walls on the south side of the lake are a favorite spot for smallmouth bass, perch and trout. The shallow bays are loaded with cruising largemouth bass, northern pike and crappie. If you're planning to keep a few fish, make sure you measure your bass, there's a fifteen-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass in this lake, but you'll easily find fish that beat the limit.

For largemouth, standard bass flies are a good bet most of the time with white being the preferred color, especially late in the summer. Trout and crappie will hit nymphs and streamers. You can't go wrong tossing a small streamer near rock walls and docks if you want to catch crappies, and northern pike will eat anything that looks like a wounded minnow, so streamers are a good bet for them as well.

French Creek flows from the town of Custer through Stockade Lake, then southeastward out of the park. Rainbow trout fishing in the walk-in area south of Stockade Lake can be excellent, especially early in the year. The area near Blue Bell Lodge is a local favorite for large browns, and the fishing is usually great. Watch out for poison ivy in some of the sections of the stream, it can be real thick. Maybe that's why the fishing is so good, the plant life keeps people away.

Grace Coolidge Creek

Grace Coolidge Creek offers the best stream fishing in the park. Upstream from Center Lake, the brook trout fishing is outstanding, especially if you're looking for a lot of fish. The walk-in fishing area below Center Lake offers rainbows that can reach 18 inches. You will also find great fishing downstream from the Game Lodge early in the year. Mid to late summer you'll find reduced flows and fishing below Center Lake can be difficult, but early in the year it is usually excellent.

Favorite flies in the park's streams include Adams and Elk Hair Caddis patterns in sizes 12 to 18. Pheasant Tail nymphs and Hare's Ears are a good bet if there's nothing happening on the surface. Later in the summer, it's hard to beat hoppers for fast action. If you tie your own, my Orange Shwapf pattern is usually a killer pattern in the park.

Mount Rushmore
Of course, family vacations usually involve more activities than fishing. You'll have a variety of opportunities for adventure in the surrounding area, so plan on spending some time enjoying the Black Hills and the many historic locations awaiting you. One favorite stop is Mount Rushmore, just a half-hour north of the park. You'll enjoy the nightly lighting ceremony and the short history lesson that goes with it. Believe me, it's worth the visit. The Crazy Horse carving north of Custer is a work in progress, and worth a visit. You might be lucky enough to catch them on a day when they will be blasting away some of the rock.

If you're willing to venture a little farther away, you'll find Devil's Tower National Monument, Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park within a three-hour drive of Custer State Park. Other opportunities include hiking trails, gold mines, caves and ghost towns. And, if the fishing is crowded or otherwise not up to par when you visit, or if you want more variety, don't forget the great fishing available in the other lakes and streams in the Black Hills that I have already exposed in my "Home Waters" series.

Custer Park has several quality campgrounds and lodges where you can relax in the peaceful mountain environment. For reservations at any of the park's lodges, call 1-800-658-3530. Campground reservations can be secured by calling 1-800-710-CAMP. Call early, these lodges and campgrounds fill up quickly during the peak months of the summer. If you would rather not stay in the park, lodging and dining places are available in any of the towns in the Black Hills.

I realize that some people will only be fishing, and a family vacation might not be on their minds; but most of us have some obligations to family and their desires. If your summer fishing get-away has to be coupled to a family vacation, Custer Park is a good choice. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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