BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST, S.D. —The brown trout looked the size of some salmon and wore neon colors of a brightness seldom seen without electricity.
Within seconds of Hans Stephenson setting the hook, we knew it would be the fish of a lifetime for most anglers.
As I watched the battle play out, I thought of something Stephenson had said after leaving another stretch of stream with fast action on smaller fish.
"I always feel somewhat spoiled living in the Black Hills," said Stephenson, a well-traveled angler. "What sets us apart is the variety of trout fishing we have in a small geographic area."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
In a few hours Tuesday morning, we found waters of quantity and quality a few minutes and miles apart.
We'll get back to both, especially troutzilla, later.
The Black Hills cover about 1.2 million acres. Though best known for Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park, the area offers much for anglers.
Clear, cool streams ranging from step-across rivulets to deep, gorgeous lakes and bigger streams are easily found amid the slopes of ponderosa pine and mountain-like peaks.
Some waters are well-stocked for anglers with any equipment who want to do some catch-and-keep fishing.
Stephenson, a guide and owner of an outfitting store in nearby Rapid City, prefers long stretches of streams where it's catch-and-release and artificial lures only. Many such areas are wildfish only. Rugged hikes or long floats aren't needed.
"You don't need a drift boat like you do on big western rivers," he said. "You can just walk and wade most of our streams."
One of the Black Hills' most productive quality waters is in an unlikely place.
Desmond Brook, a retired fly-fishing fanatic, has the time to fish the most remote reaches of the Black Hills. Instead, he seldom gets far from his Rapid City home. He estimates there are about 10 miles of quality fishing where Rapid Creek winds through the town.
"Last summer I fished 31 straight days and caught about 20 per trip," Brooks said. "I usually have it to myself."
Hundreds of grasshoppers in the vegetation along the knee-deep stream were proof why Brook exclusively fishes grasshopper imitations that he ties himself. His best fishing starts at noon when the bugs begin to get active.
In about an hour, we caught 10 gorgeous brown trout from about 10 to 14 inches. Twice as many either came unhooked or we missed connecting at the strike.
Traffic noise was a constant as were people on a nearby paved trail. At one point we had to step aside so golfers could pitch to a green across the stream.
Tuesday morning, Stephenson and I hiked a bit along a stream that wound through high-walled canyons well up into the hills.
Once he found the right flies, his prediction of quantity came true. From one pool we caught about 10 rainbows from 8 to 12 inches with a rogue 15-incher mixed in.
Though his time was limited, Stephenson insisted we hit a catch-and-release stretch where he hoped for photo-quality fish to finish the day. His success far exceeded his hopes.
Stephenson spotted a wide stripe of vibrant color tight to a mid-stream boulder. I stepped back and got to watch a good trout fisherman catch a great trout.
It took a few fly changes, but eventually the fight was on and heavily in the big brown's favor.
Stephenson's three-weight rod was as limber as a green willow switch and his line's tippet 3 1/2-pound test. The fly's size-18 hook was pea-sized and this was the rare fish that seemed to look larger as the fight progressed.
Most of the 20-plus minute battle was a stalemate as the strong fish stayed in the current but patience and good knots eventually began to win.
There were some dicey moments when the brutish fish was within a few yards of heading down some rapids. I caught my breath the four tries it took to get a size-nine fish into a size-three net.
The fish measured 25 inches with depth and width equally large. The tail and belly were blaze orange and red dots and yellows nearly as vibrant. After it swam away, we agreed it was the most impressive brown trout either of us had seen.
As we walked out, I complimented Stephenson on his ability to produce quantity and quality from two spots. "Things don't always work out that way," he said.
True, but in the Black Hills another option is always just a few minutes away.