Arkansas River Fall Redux—Without The Madding Crowds

Mid-September 2020

For my previous articles about the Arkansas River, see https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/19/goodbye-to-a-river-a-sweet-afternoon-on-the-big-ark-near-salida-co/#more-6843

Come early September, there is a magical transformation of my home water, the Arkansas River near Salida, Colorado.  The jacked-up artificial summer water flows from local reservoirs for the benefit of recreational rafters are cut down dramatically from over 1,500 cfs to under 400 cfs, making the Big Ark wadeable, if just barely.  Better yet, for the most part the parade of pesky rafters, paddleboarders, kayakers, and float fishermen are gone, offering a modicum of solitude not to mention fewer watercraft running blithely through my honey holes as I watch in utter amazement only a short cast away. 

Just such a magical day recently presented itself coupled with a perfect weather forecast in the wake of a big freak snow storm and several nights of freezing temperatures—high in the 70’s, light breezes, and sunny skies. 

Freak Early September Snow Storm And Cold Weather Trigger Pre-Spawn Bite

I immediately stowed my small creek rigs and broke out heavier Ark river tackle that had been gathering dust since April—five weight rods and 5X leaders—and other essential gear like felt-soled waders. On one rod I tied on a dry/dropper combo with my old standby #16 Royal Coachman Trude on top and a #18 beadhead sparkle caddis nymph trailing two feet below. This time of year there are grasshoppers and big caddis flies around, which the Trude imitates, and the river rocks are loaded with caddis cases. On the heavier nymph rig I tied on a #16 Tung Teaser for the small stones and mayfly nymphs in the river and a #16 beadhead sparkle caddis nymph. I added a couple of BB split shots to get the flies down into the deeper holes and a small clear bubble strike indicator.

Tomorrow morning I’ll head downstream from Salida to one of my old favorite stretches that had been devastated in 2016 by the huge Hayden Pass fire.  The runoff after the fire deposited tons of ash and silt miles downstream past Texas Creek.  It killed off practically all the bug life in the river and silted over prime spawning beds.  I fished downstream of the fire in several locations each year since and only now has it finally begun to recover to its former status.  I found abundant bug life and some decent-sized browns last year up to 14-inches, but still lots of silt.  I’m hoping for even better things this year. 

With the snow storm, it’s been cold so I decide there’s no need to be up at the crack of dawn.  I’ll try to get on the river about 10:30 after the sun has had time to warm things up a bit.  I’m on schedule as I round the bend above my favorite spot and…DAMN….there are already two trucks parked in turnouts alongside U.S. 50 next to the river.  As I drive by the intruders slowly, I breathe a sigh of relief to see they are spin fishermen and are casting from the south shoreline.  Wade fishing Rule #1 on the Ark is to get to the north bank that isn’t trampled to death like the south by anglers not willing or able to wade the big water—which is a real challenge even when the water levels are low.  I like to see 330 cfs at the Wellsville water gauge (Google Colorado Water Talk and hit the Ark River tab.).  It had been down to that level last week, but the melt from nearly a foot of snow in Salida has bumped it up to 385 cfs—my limit.  Above that, it’s risk of life, especially for old codgers like me. 

In this stretch of almost a half mile, there are only two shallower runs that can be negotiated safely.  But before plunging in, I turn over some streambed rocks and am delighted to find they are loaded with caddis cases and small mayfly nymphs scurrying about.  I also notice there is a sporadic, light hatch of big yellow mayflies and caddis flies.  All systems are GO!

The current in my chosen route across to the north side of the river is strong, but with the aid of my trusty wading staff, felt-soled wading boots, and my long legs that keep the flow below my crotch for less resistance (I’m 6’3”, or at least I was before septuagenarian shrinkage began to occur.), I think I’ll make it.  Still, I nearly take a plunge when I venture into the thigh-deep part of the run.  I start to go slip sliding downstream but manage to pirouette to safety on a shallower gravel bar.

The Ark Is Challenging Wading Even At Low Water Levels

After my heart beat slows down, I unfurl the dry/dropper combo and make a short cast upstream of a pool formed in the wake of a big mid-stream boulder, a good spot that has produced in the past. As the Royal Coachman Trude floats jauntily down the riffle above the pool, past the boulder, and into quieter water, it suddenly disappears. I gawk for a second then wake up and set the hook. The pool erupts as a nice brown slashes back and forth with the caddis nymph in his mouth. Having fished mainly small creeks this summer, I make a mistake and let him get downstream of me and into the fast current. I utter a few choice epithets at myself, thinking it’s curtains for the leader, but to my surprise it holds and soon I work the fish—a hefty, healthy 14-inch beauty—into the net. Great start!! I get three more in the next few minutes if you count one well-executed long-distance release, two on the caddis nymph and one on the Trude.

Good Start To A Great Day

When the action slows, I venture into another fast, deeper current so I can reach a quiet run against the rocks along the north bank.  It’s always produced if I can drop the fly in the slower water no more than one foot from the shoreline.  My first two casts are too far out and the flies drag when the current catches the fly line.  But the third bounces off the rocks without snagging, and floats nicely downstream, me long-arming it so only the leader is in the water to avoid drag.  I shake my rod to feed out more line to get a longer drift and just as the Trude starts to drag, a fish shoots out from behind a rock and nails it—another nice brownie that immediately takes to the air then jets downstream.  With my rod bent double, I slowly coax him in against the current into my net. 

Now I am in shallower water and begin working upstream along the north shoreline.  The water is very clear and skinny in places, but I manage to pick up a couple more chunky browns on the nymph in deeper runs.  My destination is my favorite honey hole in mid-river another hundred yards upstream where the water cascades down a wide, shallow riffle past a big boulder and then pours into a long deep run that has produced some 18-inch browns and rainbows in the past before the big fire.

I wade gingerly out to midstream to get to a sand bar behind the big boulder where I can comfortably stand out of the current and reach most of the good water. With great anticipation I cast the dry/dropper rig, get a perfect float down the riffle into the pool and a nice drift through the deeper water, but it’s no dice. I try another half dozen casts but come up empty each time. So I switch to my double nymph rig and throw a long cast at a 45-degree angle upstream into the riffle just above the pool. The strike indicator bounces down the shallow riffle and as soon as it slides into the deeper green-colored water at the head of the pool promptly disappears. I snap the rod back, and a good rainbow skyrockets into the air. He puts up a terrific battle up and down the pool refusing to yield an inch. At one point when he zooms in front of me into a fast run and blasts off downstream, I am forced to execute a graceful, ballerina-like 360 degree twirl while trying to avoid snagging my other rod that protrudes high into the air from my waders where it’s stashed. Finally the bow relents and comes in for a quick photo and release. Pushing 14-inches, he’s dined on the caddis nymph. The next two casts into the same spot produce two corpulent, frisky browns, one on the Tung Teaser and the other on the caddis nymph. Now that’s more like it! It appears that the cold snap has clearly triggered some pre-spawn appetites.

Feisty Rainbow Adds To The Fun

I get a couple of more strikes, but don’t connect, and then the pool goes quiet. I spot a rise across the pool in a shallow run over a gravel bar, the only rise I will see all day despite the big mayflies and caddis that are floating by periodically and would seem to offer a hearty meal. I switch to the dry/dropper rod and cast across the pool into the shallow water to the north of the pool. BAM! The Trude disappears into the maw of another 14-inch brownie. Three more soon follow, one on the dry and two on the caddis nymph.

But where are the big boys and girls that have called the pool home in the past?? I decide to make the proverbial last cast upstream into the riffle and as soon as the dry slides into the pool there’s a mini-eruption. This is definitely a big fish! He bores deep, and I can’t gain any line. Then as if shot out of a cannon, the big brownie blasts downstream past me and out of the pool and into the heavy current below—with me in hot pursuit. My rod is bending double, and I’m sure he’s a goner, but suddenly the trout pauses and lets me gain the upper hand. I pressure him towards the bank and after several strong runs he slides up on a sand bar. I pounce on the prize, a 16-inch plus beauty. To my surprise he’s eaten the caddis nymph on the surface before it had a chance to sink! The brownie cordially agrees to pose quietly for a photo as I slide him back into the water. He’ll be the biggest of the day.

Trophy Of The Day

Now it’s time for a snack and relaxation. I sit and reflect on the True West scene in front of me—rugged pinnacles dropping precipitously from high ridges to the river below. And the river is definitely in better shape, most of the ash and silt from the 2016 fire finally scoured away.

I also notice the little yellow western flycatchers and other songbirds popping out of their hideouts in the tall grass and bushes along the shoreline to feast on the big yellow caddis and mayflies floating on the water.  Yet nary is a fish rising for them.  Go figure. 

Then it’s on to my next old reliable honey hole.  I make an inspired cast in a narrow slot between two boulders and am rewarded with another muscular brownie. 

I then miss a couple of strikes in the main current and that’s all she wrote for this usually reliable stretch.

I continue upstream and pick up another couple of smaller brownies then come to another dependable pool below a giant boulder that splits the river. But there is too much water, the extra 60 or so cfs churning the pool into froth. I do get a flash at the nymph, but that’s it. Now it’s bushwhacking time to reach the next set of pools. I manage to catch a nice brownie leaning out over the water and executing a backhand cast upstream, but finally the brush wins, and I beat a hasty exit to the railroad track up above. I see the shoreline upstream has become completely overgrown this past year with bushes, thorns, and other nasty vegetation and find I can only descend again to the river where the local herd of bighorn sheep has trampled an opening. I make a few casts, but come up empty, except for nearly hooking a western flycatcher that picks off a mayfly in front of me then does an about turn and dive bombs my Trude, veering off at the last second! I take that as a sign it’s time to head home, the thought of wrangling with an angry bird on my line, albeit small, not being appealing, especially with a NA beer waiting in the SUV.

I wade up to the second crossing that is not risk of life and cautiously make my way to the north shoreline.  It’s been great to see the Big Ark is recovering from that huge fire, and the fishing is almost as good as ever.  Now I’m salivating thinking of how big all those 14-inch beauties will be next fall on my home water.

Now’s the time to sample the Arkansas at its best. Water levels have dropped back to around 300 cfs at Salida and Wellsville, and the brownies are feeding voraciously getting ready for the fall spawn. Best of all, you wont’ be overrun by the madding crowds of summer.

8 thoughts on “Arkansas River Fall Redux—Without The Madding Crowds

  1. Once again, Chris, you’ve got a winner. Enjoyed the pirouettes and the writing pyrotechnics. Hope to be on that stretch of the Ark next fall. Love the Collegiate range. I’ll bring the na’s.

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  2. Hi Chris,

    First off, thanks for posting. Well done as usual.

    I was over to the Rio Grande last week and was bedeviled by moss that probably resulted from the dry summer. My flies were constantly being fouled by the moss.

    Did you experience any of this on the Arkansas?

    Thanks

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    1. Thx George. Glad you enjoyed it. Fortunately moss wasn’t too bad on the Ark. Our water levels have been higher than on the Rio Grande plus they are kept artificially high in summer for the raft business. That helps scour out the moss and snot on the rocks.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There is something magical about watching your strike indicater disappear underwater or even making tiny waves on an otherwise flat piece of water. I watched mine dissappear regularly yesterday morning on a lake in northern New Mexico. Today I’m wishing I had made a video of one of those disppearances. Next year.

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