“Nothing Makes A Fish Bigger Than Almost Being Caught!”
December 30, 2017
Some of my cheeky friends accuse me of being a tad balmy for my dedication to piscatorial pursuits. Just to confirm these suspicions, I decided this last week of 2017 to take advantage of balmy weather in Colorado’s Banana Belt to chase trout several times in the Big Ark River around Salida, Colorado.
Locals use the term “Banana Belt” somewhat tongue-in-cheek. At an elevation of some 7,500 feet, Salida admittedly does not have tropical or even subtropical weather any time of year. But in truth, it is a remarkably warm high mountain valley when compared to surrounding alpine communities–Fairplay, Gunnison, Saguache–just over the passes to the north, west, and south. They are truly frigid! Indeed, this past couple of weeks we have been just as warm in Salida, and often much warmer, than mile-high Denver. The temps pushed 60 degrees several times. That’s not to say the fishing is a snap. Some tips follow that may put a big rainbow trout or brown on your line before winter really arrives.
Where To Find Winter-Time Trout In The Banana Belt
Rule #1 is to remember that trout like the sun in the winter, so look for stretches of the Arkansas where the valley is wide or the cliffs and ridges in the canyon downstream from Salida recede to let the warming rays in. Unlike the summer, runs and pools in the shadows are less productive. A good example of a sunny precinct is the Big Bend area just outside of town to the west where the river turns sharply to the north. Here the valley is several miles wide, and the sun plentiful on a clear day. Fortunately, there are a number of state fishing easements that provide access in the Big Bend.
I find it a good idea to scout the day before, up- and downstream from town, to discover specific spots along the river that bask in the sun and at what time the old Sol hits the water first (rarely before 9:30 a.m.). Also key is just when it goes down below the mountains (which is usually before 3:30 p.m. in most places). In the canyon below Salida it is usually the north-south stretches that will bask in the sun first and longest.
Rule #2 is to assiduously avoid sections of the Arkansas within one-fourth mile of commercial RV campgrounds and several camp sites designated by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), a 152-mile stretch of the river under joint state and federal management. The AHRA is a well-intentioned idea and government vehicle created in 1989 to protect and manage the upper section of the Arkansas River. While it has notched some major accomplishments like maintaining better water flows and reining in the flotillas of rafters, the result (when coupled with state’s recognition of the river as a Gold Medal water) has sometimes been the opposite. Compared to 30 years ago before the AHRA, hordes more people descend on the area, especially on weekends. And the AHRA and associated state and federal agencies simply do not have enough people to manage the area effectively–indeed I have never run into a ranger or other AHRA personnel on the river, only emptying trash bins at rafting put-in points. This lack of effective management is no fault of the dedicated staff at AHRA, but a result of short-sighted parsimony by our state and federal administrations and legislatures. I’ll gladly give my recent tax cut back and will pay MORE taxes to properly manage and protect our public patrimony and make sure future generations can enjoy it intact.
A good example of what has gone wrong is what in the early 1990s was a mile-long section of the river below Wellsville. It was my favorite stretch, hard to get to, and loaded with good browns and rainbows. Then the AHRA improved access, built some attractive camp grounds for RVs, and designated a couple of primitive camping areas along the river, but imposed no restrictions on bait fishing or limits on the size of fish that could be caught and killed beyond the state’s minimal requirements. Surprise! This once great area is fished out.
On one recent trip there I had two strikes in four hours, caught one fish, and saw only one other where I used to see and catch and release dozens in the clear water. To make matters worse, the land has been stripped of downed timber for firewood and paths cut willy-nilly up and down the steep banks. The area has been loved to near death. Colorado is predicted to add another million people in the coming decades. I wonder whether the body politic will be smart enough to protect what we have and even add more parks and wild areas to the public realm plus fund the caretakers to watch over them?? Ok, enough pontificating. Back to the fishing.
A corollary of Rule #2 is to get on the other side of the river away from Highway 50 that parallels the Ark below Salida. The south side of the river gets far more pressure than the less accessible north. At lower flows in the winter, wading across the river is possible with all due care, and there are bridges and roads here and there that give access to the north shore.
Once you locate a sunny stretch of water, the traditional approach is to dredge heavily weighted nymphs through deep holes off the main current where the water is warmer and the cold-blooded, slow-moving winter trout don’t have to expend as much energy to grab a meal. That tactic generally works when the weather has been cold for an extended period, but there are exceptions and this is a season of exceptions. Warm weather in November and December has trout venturing into shallower areas–sometimes only a foot or two deep– to soak up the warming sun and even into faster-moving riffles to pick off midge, mayfly, and caddis larvae zipping by downstream in the early afternoon. This past two months I caught exactly zero fish in holes deeper than four feet. Most were caught on unweighted nymphs in water 2-3 feet deep.
Gear And Tackle (For a detailed discussion of gear, tackle, and flies see my Dec. 6 Blog “Legends of The Late Fall)
Rule #3 is, of course, to dress warmly. I am a big fan of old-fashioned neoprene waders which are apparently a bit out of style. I bumped into a couple of younger anglers on the stream in November who asked me what I was wearing–they had never seen or heard of neoprene waders. Believe me, they are much warmer than the light-weight breathable waders no matter how many layers you put on underneath. And don’t forget socks–at least 3 pair (liner, wool, heavy wool).
I also strongly recommend felt soles or cleats on the Arkansas whose rocks seem to be getting slicker every year. I attribute this to the uncontrolled suburban sprawl in Chaffee County, which has rarely seen a development it doesn’t like or approve. With the rich effluent from the septic tanks of homes built right along the river and its tributaries as well as the Salida wastewater treatment plant, it’s no wonder anglers are seeing a lot more algae and snotty growth on the river’s rocks. I have recently added a wading staff to my basic gear to help avoid a dunking.
I always carry two rods on the Arkansas. In the winter I rig a nine-foot #5 rod with two small nymphs about 2 feet below a featherweight yellow yarn strike indicator. On the second, a 8 1/2-foot #5 weight heavier rod, I tie on a weighted stone-fly nymph trailed by a #18 caddis nymph. To this rig I add a plastic bubble strike indicator and a couple of BB split shot. The strike indicator is set high on the #5 leader to allow the nymphs to dredge the bottom in deeper holes.
It’s important to dial down the size of your flies in winter to match what is in the water–mostly small critters. For caddis, I use a #18 green hotwire beadhead nymph. For the small mayflies in the river, #18-20 bluewing olive nymphs are a good bet. And don’t overlook tiny midges, which make up a surprising share of a trout’s diet this time of year. Sizes 18-22 in red and black work well trailed behind a #18 caddis nymph. On the heavier nymph rig, my lead fly is a #10-12 stonefly trailed by a caddis or mayfly nymph.
What a delight to be able to catch some big trout on the cusp of 2018! This past week I was fortunate to net a 17-inch brown on a two-hour outing with my old friend, Professor Ed Ziegler.
Ed and I co-founded the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the University of Denver Law school some 25 years age. Just to prove his exalted professorial standing, Ed got an even bigger one!!
Then the next day fishing alone, I fooled a vividly colored, leopard-spotted 18-inch rainbow on a caddis nymph, one of my biggest…and final…fish of the year.
I will continue to chase rainbows in 2018–mainly of the piscatorial variety along with browns and cutthroats as well as snook, redfish, and tarpon in warmer climes.
These waters, fresh and salt, bring me peace, solitude, and quiet satisfaction. I will keep writing about them in hopes it will spur others to cherish such special, wild places and campaign to protect them for the generations to come like my little granddaughter Aly. Surely we owe that to them. Happy New Year to all my friends and readers and my best to you for 2018! Tight lines wherever you may be!!