The Big Ark: Row vs. Wade Revisited

Late September 2018

The creeks around my home base of Salida, Colorado, are barely a trickle reflecting the drought gripping Colorado.  The Big Arkansas River, my home water, is running at 200 CFS, the lowest I have ever seen it since I started fishing here in the early 1990s.  I can wade across it just about anywhere.  Normal is about 350 CFS.  But at least it has some water and is fishable.  Indeed, the fishing gurus at the Ark Anglers fly shop report that the fish are actually doing better than usual because they haven’t had to fight the usual artificially high summer flows that result when upstream reservoirs dump water to support the recreational whitewater rafting industry.  The Arkansas is the most heavily rafted river in the world bar none!  Literally thousands of rafts careen down the river each day all summer and into the fall.

Back in the 90s, the Big Ark was my favorite water.  During the week, it was mostly deserted, with only a few hearty anglers scattered over almost 50 miles of good trout water.  But even then, it was starting to be a battle with the recreational rafters.  I was writing a conservation column for American Angler back then, and penned an article titled “Row vs. Wade” that documented the growing conflicts between the rafters, float fishermen, kayakers and the lonely angler like me in chest waders.  After having boatloads of cheerful whitewater rafters plunging through honey holes I was targeting and asking me “how’s the fishing?”, flotillas of kayakers porpoising in rapids only a stone’s throw away that I knew held big rainbows, and float fishing guides letting their clients cast in pools just upstream from me on my side of the river, I suggested a river code of civility that respected the traditional wade fisherman with his limited range on the water (e.g., if you are a float fisherman and see a wade fisherman downstream, quit casting immediately and hug the bank on the other side of the stream till you are a quarter mile below him).

Unfortunately, when the Ark was declared a Gold Medal Water by the State of Colorado, which was like erecting a big neon sign for every angler in Denver and Colorado to come get it, and the creation of the Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area (AHRA), a joint federal-state effort ostensibly to better manage the 148 miles of river between Leadville and Pueblo, that actually resulted in attracting more hordes of campers in RVs and every other imaginable form of shelter to primitive campgrounds along the water, things just deteriorated.  The weekends are a total write-off for any sane fly angler, and even during the week it isn’t unusual now to see dozens of anglers along the river in addition to all the hoi polloi on it in watercraft (oh, did I mention the addition of SUPs stand-up paddle boarders to the mélange??).

Now I know I am sounding like a curmudgeonly, grumpy old F**T, but as a result I just gave up fishing the Ark altogether during the summer and, like this year, just waited to early fall for my first outing on my beloved home water.  This September I chose a stretch far enough above the AHRA campground at Rincon where float fisherman, rafters, and kayakers often use the boat ramp to launch and far enough below access points upstream that I might get lucky and not have to curse and wail when I got run over by knucklehead watercrafters—at least until later in the day.  On a beautiful sunny fall day, I set out with high hopes….

As I pull off to the side of the road at 9 a.m. high above my chosen stretch of the river, I am smiling and thinking nothing like a bluebird fall day in Colorado.  From my perch I can see some trout finning in the crystal clear pools below.  Under normal conditions, I wouldn’t be able to wade across at this point—too fast and deep.  It was an old favorite spot I discovered more than 20 years ago that could be accessed only by a rough 4-wheel drive road on the other side of the river.  I had many glorious days fishing here, catching and releasing dozens of fish on each trip, often some big brownies and bows in the mix.

But part of that road washed out upstream a few years ago and hasn’t been repaired, so I figure this stretch probably might not get that much pressure.  And I can’t see anyone camping across the river in the very primitive campground that the AHRA created or at least tolerated some years back that resulted in the landscape being torn up and trampled.

I suit up in chest waders and felt-soled boots (the Ark has angular and slick rocks), and started slip-sliding down the steep slope to the river.  I lurch several times and almost do a header, but manage to slow my descent by grabbing onto bushes.  When I get to the water, I see a better gentler trail cutting across the slope a hundred yards upstream and make a note to use that route on the way back rather than risking mayhem and injury again on this one.  I size up the river and select a spot where I can wade across without getting a dunking—even at 200 CFS the Ark is no river to fool around with.  It’s still powerful and dangerous if you are careless.  I try to avoid spooking the fish in a couple of good-looking pools that I want to hit on the way back.

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The Big Ark On A Beautiful Fall Day

When I hit the shoreline, my heart sinks a bit….lots of boot marks in some muddy spots, which means other anglers have made the crossing just like me, and recently.  And when I ascend the slope to continue downstream, I see fresh ATV tracks…AARRGH!  I discover later there is a very rough, sketchy 4WD road that allows the Yahoos to drive up this far when the water is low enough to ford Badger Creek downstream.  But I still have the place to myself, so all is not lost.  I stow my lunch and repair to the river a quarter mile downstream.  My strategy is to fish upstream until noon hitting the pools I know hold fish before any watercraft or other anglers spoil them, then in the afternoon walk further downstream to water I don’t know as well, and fish back up to my lunch spot.

Even though the water is low, my favorite pool still has plenty of water, but it’s in the shade since the sun is just starting to break out over the canyon walls to the south.  Nothing is interested in my dry/dropper, a #16 Royal Trude and #18 Beadhead CDC Hotwire Caddis nymph.  It’s still cool and the water is ice cold, but I’m surprised there is not action since the rocks in the river are loaded with caddis nymphs.  So I break out my double nymph rig with a Tung Teaser and caddis nymph and dredge the bottom of the pool, figuring the trout are holed up deeper in the warmer depths.  Same result….NADA.  I move up to the next run that has yielded plenty of nice brownies in the past, but get zero action, except snagging the lower fly of the nymph rig necessitating a deep-water rescue of my tackle.  Nothing like an ice-cold shirt sleeve!

Finally about 10:30 a.m., I hit a shallow stretch that’s in full sun and throw a long cast to some clear, shallow fast water just below a riffle.  My Royal Trude bounces jauntily downstream and promptly disappears.  I set the hook, hook a nice brownie, and promptly am disconnected.  That scene would be repeated several more times, the problem being I am using my light weight eight-foot fly rod suited perfectly for backcountry creeks crowded with bushes and overhanging branches rather than my longer nine-footer with more backbone that makes long-distance casting and hooking much easier.  I was too lazy to switch rigs back at the cabin—I had used the shorter rod on a small stream a couple of days ago, and am now paying the price.  The clear water is demanding long casts, which my shorter rod is barely up to, but it has much less leverage when trying to set the hook on a far away fish.  Oddly, I get skunked altogether all day in the deeper runs where my nymph rig should be doing damage.

As I work upstream, I spy a nice trout feeding below the surface in a shallow pool just downstream of a rock splitting the current near the shoreline.  I creep up carefully, kneel, and execute a perfect cast five feet above the little boulder. The trout nails the Trude as it floats by, and puts on an energetic display, jumping and cavorting up and down the river.  The 13-incher breaks the ice, and I start to pick up fish here and there in likely spots—mostly shallower pools off the main current where the sun is warming things up.

Finally I see a good trout rise midstream below a big boulder, gulping down something invisible off the surface.  There’s no hatch, but it’s a good sign.  I maneuver into position and bounce my dry fly off the boulder.

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Brownie Lair

It swirls in the current, and a beautiful hefty, shimmering brown nails it.  He jets upstream, then reverses course until he spots me, but by then I have him under control and ease him to the bank.  A nice 15-inch beauty, just in time for a lunch break.

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Lunch-Break Brown

But there’s one more good pool just up at the big bend in the river, one that was always an old reliable.  I decide to hit it before lunch.  Except as I wade upstream, I catch sight of some movement along the shoreline—a couple of guys are descending to the river.  Another one is already wading into the pool.  Damn!  But I don’t see any fly rods.  Instead they are placer miners, the bane of this area.  Not only is the pool ruined for the day, they will be mucking up the water.

The amateur miners use a rocker or sluice box that they feed gravel into then wash water through it to separate out the heavier gold nuggets.  Dejectedly I fly the white flag and trudge back downstream to my lunch cooler where my cold RC Cola and other goodies await.  My morning count is about a half dozen brownies.

After a leisurely lunch, I trek downstream about a half mile towards a big “S” bend in the river featuring several deep holes.  I bushwhack down to the water and continue on the shoreline, but bump into yet another placer miner.   Of course he has sullied the pools downstream already, so I am resigned to fishing upstream the short stretch back to my lunch spot.

At the big bend above me, the river has gouged out a massive dark and mysterious pool where it bounces off a big cliff and then swirls on downstream.  It looks like a perfect hole for the nymph rig that should be able to get down to any big trout holding deep as they usually do in spots like this.  But a dozen casts later I have come up empty, so I break out the dry/dropper rod.  I cast the rig into the cascade above the hole and watch as the current carries the Trude up against the cliff.  Then to my surprise, it disappears.  Snag, I think, but when I lift the rod the snag moves.  I’m onto a decent brownie, which will be the first of several along the cliff face that fall for the caddis nymph.  The water there must be at least six feet deep, but the trout are sitting just under the surface.

Above the cascade, I work the south shoreline that has now warmed up and net a couple more foot-long brownies, all on the caddis nymph.  Then I come to another of my old favorite honey holes where the current slices from the south to the north shoreline and plunges into a deep run against a steep embankment.  I test the quieter water on the edge of the current, and get a couple of flashes, but no solid hits.  Then I hear a racket upriver and spy a small flotilla of kayaks just around the bend getting ready to cast off and head my way.  Which has me double-timing to the head of the pool to fish it before they run through and put the fish down.

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The Last Honey Hole

On the very first cast a shadow emerges from the depth, inspects the dry fly, and then opens its mouth and chomps down.  It’s a big one, the biggest of the day.  He immediately dives for a big boulder across the river, but I manage to turn him before he reaches the snag-filled depths.  He’s straining my small rod to the max, but finally relents and comes to the net—a nice, well-fed 16-incher!

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Big Brown Caps Beautiful Fall Day

How timely, as I look up and see the kayakers running the rapids and into the pool.  I motion them to come on through, even managing to smile while gritting my teeth.  Oh well, the prize brownie, in his whirling dervish fight, has likely put down his brethren in the pool.

I take a couple of quick photos and decide to call it a day as the yakkers likely have spooked every fish a couple of hundred yards upstream with their shenanigans.  I count myself lucky that they have been the only watercraft I have seen all day.

As I sit on a big boulder overlooking the river, basking in the sun and thinking of the dozen or so fish I have caught and released that day.  I congratulate myself for th uncharacteristic restraint I displayed by not excoriating the kayakers for spoiling that last pool.  Instead of riding the current down literally an arm’s length in front of me, they could have easily dismounted and walked their kayaks through the shallow water behind me.  What’s the answer to these annoying and increasing conflicts?  Should I monkey wrench a couple of the sports with a stout but invisible wire strung across the river to clothes line them out of their boats??  That would send a clear message.  In my younger days I might have pursued that option, but now…??  I’d probably drown in the process.

It certainly would help if the AHRA printed and distributed “rules of river civility” at each of the 50+ access points it has created on the river.  I am amazed at how many rafters, kayakers, and SUPs don’t understand they put fish down when they storm through a pool someone is fishing.  Education of fishing and whitewater rafting guides would also help—give wading anglers a wide berth and the right-of-way whenever possible.  Stop your clients from paddling or fishing when they see fisherman downstream and get to the other side of the river. The thoughtful ones already do that.   In the long run, the answer may be to have fishing-only stretches of the river where watercraft are prohibited.  That’s a fat chance given the economic power of the rafting industry.  Or like I have done, sadly secede your home water to the masses and retreat to the solitude of those remote creeks too shallow or small to float a boat or raft and where boot marks are few and far between.

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