100-Mile Getaway: Fish, hike, camp or picnic through Sand Creek
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100-Mile Getaway: Fish, hike, camp or picnic through Sand Creek

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Entering Ranch A to fish Sand Creek is like dropping into a fairy land. The prairie surrounding the canyon is brown and dusty, speckled with sage brush and the occasional juniper.

But inside Ranch A, winding along Sand Creek, are verdant green meadows, willows, wild plums and flowers.

Houses dot the river in places – don’t fish those sections, they’re private – but keep driving over quaint bridges and through towering bur oak trees and you’ll reach the public portions.

You could jump out and fish right away, wetting your flies in the water and hoping for a bite. Or you can take a minute to soak in the wonder of the place.

Canyon walls with dramatic rock outcrops and ponderosas keep the creek isolated, protected and seemingly removed from the outside world. Turkeys may gobble in the distance or meander through the grass. Mule and white tail deer graze. Eagles and vultures soar above. Owls come out at night.

If the area itself is a destination, we don’t blame you. But if you’re interested in fishing, know that Sand Creek has the distinction of carrying more trout per mile than nearly any other stream in Wyoming. You read that right.

Many of them are small rainbows and brown trout – colorful, spunky 6, 8 or 10 inches long – but fisheries biologists have seen brown trout in the creek measure up to 25.5 inches.

“It’s different than anywhere else in Wyoming,” said Paul Mavrakis, fisheries supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Sheridan office. “It’s a spring creek, low elevation with spooky fish, really clear water and really consistent flows. It will be crystal clear most of the time.”

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The stone arch leading into Ranch A lets you know there’s history in that canyon.

The Black Hills themselves have a rich legacy as a hunting ground and sacred region for the Western Sioux tribe. The Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho and Crow also called the region home.

In that section of canyon, a man had started a commercial trout farm raising fish for area restaurants. When a media mogul named Moses L. Annenberg broke down in Spearfish, S.D., on his way to Yellowstone, he went to visit the trout farm. In 1932, he bought it, creating what’s now called Ranch A, according to the Ranch A Restoration Foundation.

Former Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith purchased the land and buildings not long after.

The area changed hands again, eventually selling to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1963 for fish research and then transferring to the state in 1996. It’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

That history can draw you in, and feel free to picnic along the shores of Sand Creek while admiring both the impressive log buildings and surrounding nature.

Hiking trails crisscross through the adjacent lands. A long, gravel road winds up through the canyon taking you on an extended journey. Hop off on any forest road to stop and hike or watch for wildlife.

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If it sounds like more than a day trip even from as close to Gillette or Sundance, bring along your tent or camper and stay overnight.

Game and Fish offers several primitive sites along the creek before the Ranch A property, and plenty of surrounding National Forest provide options for dispersed camping.

But back to that fishing.

If you saunter up to the stream, you’ll see your quarry flitting around in the clear water. You may also see a silent explosion of fish scatter, heading for cover at the appearance of a tall predator on the shore.

“They’re tough to catch. You have to be sneaky,” he said. “That’s the real key with that place. If you’re serious about it, it’s almost like hunting big game.”

No one will judge you if you approach the creek on your hands and knees.

“If they see you first, you’re pretty much done.”

But don’t be deterred. The dry fly fishing can be incredible, with rumors of a good grasshopper crop this year. When in doubt, cast midges and other tiny nymphs into the clear riffles.

Even if you’re not an angler, don’t own a fly rod and never intend to try fishing, the place is still worth a visit. Take along food and a camera. Soak in the remoteness. Escape.

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