Late October 2019
For some earlier articles on fishing the Arkansas River, see my posts from late 2018
I was well into packing up for my annual migration to the Florida Everglades for the winter. The first snow had already fallen, leaves were falling fast, and the wind had been blowing like a banshee all week, making fly fishing a dangerous sport.
But then as if by magic, the winds relented and the angling gods beckoned, an irresistible siren’s call. I hadn’t been out on my old home water, the Arkansas River, that flows close by my cabin near Salida, Colorado, since March. When I moved to Colorado back in the late 80s, the Big Ark was undiscovered. I could fish all day on a weekend back then and rarely bump into another angler. But it wasn’t long after that rafting on the river turned into a big business, industrial-style tourism. Then the state designated the Arkansas as Gold Medal trout water, followed soon thereafter by creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Both events were the equivalent of putting a big neon sign that said come on over, ye hordes from Denver and recreate. And they did.
Today Denver has over a million more residents than back then with easier access to Salida, the result being flotillas of rafters, kayaks, SUPs, float fisherman, and other assorted riffraff to drive wade fisherman berserk.
It’s virtually impossible to find a quiet spot on the river for piscatorial pursuits, even on weekdays. Now if I am sounding like an old curmudgeon, I plead guilty. Rant completed.
But suddenly to my wonder, the winds have died down, the water level on the Ark is 275 cfs, perfect for wading but too low for most rafters and kayaks, and the cold weather dipping into the 30s at night has sent fair-weather anglers scurrying to warmer climes. Now if I can dodge the increasing legions of placer miners on the river and avoid the smoke bellowing down valley from the big Deckers fire, I may find some solitude like the old days and even some fish.
With the temperatures dipping below freezing at my cabin above Salida, there’s no need to be on the water at the crack of dawn—gentleman’s fishing hours are the order of the day. I stop by my local fly shop, Ark Anglers, to consult with angling maven Tony King about flies, and then am on the road around 10 a.m. To escape the smoke from the wildfire, my aim is to fish some of the miles of water below the little burg of Coaldale. I’m curious to see if my favorite fishing stretches that were ruined several years ago by the silty, ash-filled runoff from the huge Hayden Creek fire have recovered. All that runoff killed most of the bug life in the river, causing the trout to vacate.
When I hit my old river haunts, the sun still has not peeked above the canyon rim, leaving the water in the shadows, too cold for man and trout alike. I continue on downstream past Texas Creek to sample some new waters I have ogled when driving to Canon City. There’s one stretch in particular features big bends and deep pools below that looks particularly intriguing, and I find it’s already being bathed in sunlight that will warm the fish up.
Still, it’s only 35 degrees as I don my waders and do a little bushwhacking to the river. I’m carrying a 9-foot, 5-weight rod rigged with a dry/dropper combo—a bushy attractor #16 Royal Trude to imitate some the grasshoppers still jumping about and a #18 beadhead sparkle caddis nymph that resembles the hordes of caddis I find under the river rocks. On the other rod I mount a double nymph rig (#12 stonefly and #18 Two-Bit Hooker) under a bubble strike-indicator and a couple of BB split shots.
The water is running clear and beautiful, and the first pool has a nice deep run down the middle with some good-looking back eddies and nooks along the opposite shoreline. As I venture out, I’m surprised how strong the current is despite the low water level. My wading staff comes in handy right off the bat. But after a couple dozen good casts and drifts in all the likely spots, I come up empty. I spy a couple of excellent looking, quieter pools upstream on the opposite shore, but find that despite my 6’3” frame and vaunted wading capability, can’t make it across without risking a dunking in the ice cold water and air.
With my tail between my legs, I head downstream to another pool that looks less challenging. On the way down, I see a few old boot marks, but nothing recent, a rarity on the Ark these days. This new stretch looks more inviting. The river is wider so the flows are not as heavy and there is some quiet water just off the main current on my side that should hold some brownies.
But after another dozen well-executed casts and drifts, I come up empty again. I’m beginning to smell a skunk as I try the nymph rig. Again, a good cast and drift but no action….until I begin to lift the line for another cast when something whacks the Two-Bit Hooker hard. It’s a nice brown that doesn’t appear to have missed many means the last few weeks. He’s stuffed to the gills, but still manages to put up a good fight and a couple of jumps despite his corpusculent figure.
Now I think I’ve solved the riddle and am in the clover, an epic day in the offing. But I don’t get another bite in that long stretch and again can’t wade across to the other side, which is usually the ticket on the Arkansas where the highway side of the river often gets pounded.
I reverse direction and trudge back upstream to another great-looking pool below where the river splits around a gravel bar and the flow slows a bit.
As I approach, I see a good trout finning slowly just off the main current in three-feet of water. But before I can cast, he scurries off! I pound the water again, this time for a half-hour before moving up to the very intriguing deep, big bend pool I saw from the road. The water is a mysterious green-blue, obviously harboring some big fish.
Or at least that’s what I think. Again I come up empty after a dozen casts, and find again the current is too strong and deep to wade across to the other untrammeled side.
My growling stomach tells me it’s time for lunch and phase two of the outing back up towards Texas Creek and Cotopaxi. After a drive upstream and a hearty streamside lunch to recharge, I’m back on the water at 1:30 p.m. Now the sun is shining brightly, and the water starts to warm which is likely to start pulling the fish in the shallows. Here, further upstream, I am able to wade across to the far shoreline to call upon some familiar pools. I always feel like I’m having a pleasant conversation with an old friend when I revisit waters I first plied three decades ago. Of course like chums of the past, they have changed, but there are still many good times to revisit and discuss. I’m just happy no one else is around to hear me talking to myself.
If by magic, on the very first serious cast with the dry/dropper, a nice brownie rises to the Trude, smacking it without hesitation. As the trout comes to the net, I smile and tip my hat to my old comrade, the Big Ark.
As I work upstream, the action is steady, albeit not as wild and crazy as in the old days nor are the fish as big, averaging 11-13-inches rather than 12-16. I am heartened to find that a lot of the ashen-laded silt that choked the river a couple of years ago has been washed away in this year’s big snowmelt. There are still some mucky mud flats along some of the shoreline, but clearly the river is recovering and the fish are back. Inspecting some streambed rocks, I find them loaded with caddis cases, but don’t find as many mayfly nymphs that require colder, cleaner water. A few tiny mayflies and midges are flitting about in the air, but I won’t see a rise to a natural all afternoon.
The rays of the sun have clearly warmed up the trout and some have moved into pools just off shallow riffles. I fool another six or so in those spots, half on the dry and half on the caddis dropper. While I continue to pound the deeper runs with the nymph rig, I come up empty. Should have probably tied on a streamer like Tony advised me at the fly shop, but I’m not a big streamer fishing fan.
Finally I come to my all-time favorite pool where the river is split by a giant boulder, creating two perfect pools with quiet water just off the main current. I’ve fooled some good rainbows here. I kneel to keep a low profile, and cast just to the right and downstream of the big rock. The line unfurls and the fly drops delicately in the current, floats a few feet, then spins out into the pool. Suddenly there’s a flash–a good fish has nailed the nymph. He cartwheels into the air, a stout brownie. He’s clearly a smart old devil, and rockets by me on his way downstream. If he makes the rapids and heavy current below, he’ll likely snap by leader and be free. I apply all the pressure I dare, and with my rod bending at a perilous angle finally turn him just before he plunges through the heavy water. Then it’s a matter of time after a couple of frantic runs to and fro before I ease him into the net. A beautiful 14-inch plus brown wearing his fall colors.
As he swims back to his home, shadows descend on the river, the sun just dipping below the canyon walls. The air cools immediately, as does the fishing. It’s been a satisfying day with my old buddy. Good to see the river is recovering and hanging in there after a bout with some physical adversity—much like my Baby-Boomer friends and me. Still some good miles to travel, things to do, places to see.