January 3, 2018
I’m standing in the ice-cold Arkansas River just after noon watching my little white bubble strike indicator bob slowly downstream. After barely making it to midnight on New Year’s Eve before crashing, I resolved to get out among some Banana Belt bad boys early in 2018 for a little fun. So here I am, decked out in my finest New Year’s costume, ready to party. It’s a balmy 46 degrees, not bad for early January at 7,500 feet.
Then wham!! Something slams into me, almost knocking me off my feet. It’s not a fish, but a big chunk of ice four feet long, one that could sink a small boat. The cold weather the last few nights has frozen up the shallows, and now as the sun shines and temps rise into the upper 40s, big pieces are breaking off and flowing downstream in the fast current. I dance around trying to evade some more chunks while keeping one eye on the strike indicator…which I notice seems to have disappeared. I reflexively lift my rod tip quickly and feel the surge of a good fish. So begins my first outing of the New Year with what will prove to be some big bad boy brown trout on the Arkansas River near Salida.
Last week I fished another stretch of the Arkansas below the Big Bend, and found most of the fish in shallower water and even faster riffles (See my December 30, 2017, blog.). They had fallen exclusively for a rig of two small nymphs under a small yellow yarn strike indicator sans split shot. Today the story will be entirely different. The fish are back in the spots you would expect them in winter—deeper holes with slower flows a few feet outside the main current, lying close to the bottom where the water is warmer. A week of night-time temperatures below freezing will do that. Now a big weighted #12 stonefly nymph will catch as many as the tiny #18 green hotwire caddis nymph that trailed a couple of feet behind. The heavy stonefly nymph coupled with two BB split shot got the flies down to the bottom-hugging fish. Indeed, today I would get all my fish in only three runs where I couldn’t see the bottom in the very clear water. Nary a bite on the light nymph/yarn indicator rig.
After releasing the first trout that goes 14-inches, I cast upstream again trying to miss the lumps of slushy ice pocking the pool. In almost exactly the same spot as before, the white bubble slowly submerges.
I set the hook and am onto something even bigger. The trout flashes in the current as he heads downstream pell mell with me in hot pursuit, dancing daintily among the ice cubes. He then shoots into the heavier water, and I think “game over,” but the 5X leader holds somehow and soon I am easy the next big boy onto the shore. I am semi-shocked to see he’s even bigger, pushing 17-inches! I stay put and work the hole for the next 15 minutes, catching a 15-incher and losing 3 more good ones. Not a bad start to a winter’s day.
For the next half hour, I explore runs that usually produce well in the summer, but produce a goose egg. They are just too shallow and fast-moving. Fortunately nature puts on a good show for me. A bald eagle wheels overhead, a big flock of noisy Canada geese object to my presence, and a herd of deer make a splashy exit to the other side of the river when catching sight of me.
Finally I round the bend and am in a big pool with a long deep run along the south bank. But it proves to be a little too fast, and I get nary a strike, so I carefully pick my way across the river, relying on my trusty wading staff. Even though the Ark is flowing at a very modest 330 cfs, it’s still a big river, and I don’t fancy doing an impromptu polar bear plunge. Safely across, I start to probe the north bank that gets more sunshine and is deeper at the head of the pool, but with a slow steady current. I am wading almost chest deep in the frigid water, having no choice as the ice shelf extends some 20 feet out from the bank in the quiet water that freezes more quickly than the faster stretches. I edge up slowly along the shelf and loft a cast into the riffle that cascades into the deeper water downstream . As soon as the bubble bounces into the slower, deeper water, it is yanked hard under the surface, and my rod bends double—a really good one is on. I fight him for five minutes, unable to even lift the trout high enough in the water column to get a peek. Then he angles across the river and gets below me, and I think it’s curtains…the combination of the heavy mid-stream current and his bulk will prove to be too much. I say a little prayer and put the brakes on him, my rod doubles, and slowly he eases out of the current. I fumble with my folding net, fully expecting him to twist off while I’m bumbling around, but he cooperates by sulking for a moment which allows me to get set up for the landing. I continue to coax him towards me, and finally get his head up so I can slide the net under him. I am shocked to see he must be almost 18-inches, a real trophy brown on the Arkansas. I expected him to be on the stone, but to my surprise he ate the little caddis nymph. It’s one of my biggest Ark River fish of the year!! The proverbial bad boy.
But the day isn’t over. That pool produces three more hefty fish including two sixteen inchers and one at 15, two on the caddis and one on the stone. I won’t mention the other three I hook and then adroitly execute long-distance releases upon. But who’s complaining.
I continue fishing upstream for another half hour, but as the sun starts to fade, the trout seem to turn off. Then I run into a covey of spin fishermen who are working their way downstream….which signals time to head home.
As I a walk out downstream along the beautiful tawny cottonwood-studded floodplain, the waning sunlight seems to signal not only the end of the day, but the end of the trout fishing season for me. The ice starting to pile up on the shoreline, narrowing the river, is a punctuation point.
But wait, just as I am about to scramble up the hill to my SUV, I pass a pool that earlier in the day had a thin sheet of ice over it. Now it’s semi-open and looking good. I argue with myself. “Naw, time to go. Hmmm, but could be a fish in there.” It’s only 4 p.m. and there’s a few minutes of sun left, so I scramble down the bank and cast the heavy nymph rig into the riffle above the pool. It swirls slowly, untouched downstream past me. Another cast, same song, same verse. But on the third cast, the bubble slowly submerges. I suspect a snag, but as I lift the rod slowly, feel something moving on the other end. In a minute, another good 14-inch brownie is sliding onto the shore! Great way to end the season….persistence and staying a little later often pay off!
In a couple of weeks I head to Florida for the winter and trade my flannel shirts and corduroy pants (yes, I am an old-fashioned guy) for shorts and sandals. The river will be fishable sporadically throughout the winter after a few days of 50-degree weather–check out conditions with the local fly shop in Salida, Ark Anglers. But I will be long gone by then…salting margaritas, not sidewalks!!