For some of my earlier winter outings on the Arkansas River, see the following articles:
It’s a cold December evening in the Colorado mountains with temperatures predicted to dip to seven degrees tonight. I am usually long-gone to Florida this time of year, chasing snook and tarpon. However, this winter a certain virus and grandpa day care duties for my sweetheart four-year old granddaughter Aly have combined to make me stay put in my cabin near Salida.
Fortunately, I am sitting in front of a blazing fire with a glass of Old Vine Zinfandel that’s easing the suffering a tad.
As I sip the red elixir, I began to daydream about chasing the elusive brown trout on my home water, the Arkansas River. My thoughts may be a bit balmy, but after all this is the so-called Banana Belt, a valley much warmer than nearby South Park or the Gunnison River environs just over Monarch Pass. So with high hopes, I check the weather forecast for the next week and am delighted to see in a couple of days the daytime temps are supposed to soar into the 50s. That’s more like it!! I begin to plot my next outing.
Come morning I haul out my old neoprene waders from storage in the basement. As I have written previously, while unknown to most young anglers (aka the under 50 crowd), neoprenes are ever so much more suitable in winter than those thin high-tech breathable waders no matter how good your long johns are. (For some tips on cold weather river fishing apparel and fishing gear, see my article above from late 2017.) Later in the day while enjoying another fire I rig up a couple of rods. On one, an 8-1/2 foot four-weight, I tie on two nymphs under a yellow yarn strike indicator with no weights. This one is for when the fish move into shallower, slow runs to warm up during the day. The other is heavier 8 ½ foot five-weight with a couple of weighted nymphs below two BB split shots and a bubble strike indicator. This one is for the trout when hiding near the bottom in deeper, warmer water just out of the main current. My leaders on both rigs are 5X as I don’t find the Arkansas River fish leader shy in the winter.
A couple of days later I am loading up my SUV and heading out at 11 a.m. to one of my favorite stretches of the Ark above Salida. In this neck of the woods and at this altitude, winter is definitely very civil gentleman’s fishing hours of 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.. Starting late gives the water a chance to warm up under a bright sun in a bluebird Colorado sky. Most of my winter fishing on the Big Ark is done around Salida and downstream towards Coaldale where the temperatures are usually 5-15 degrees warmer than in Buena Vista and upstream from there.
When I get to my chosen spot I am happy to see there are no other vehicles in the small parking area. I rarely fish the Arkansas from May to October any longer when it’s overrun with kayakers, paddleboarders, float fisherman, and other wade anglers. But weekdays from November through March I usually have the place to myself like in the good old days.
After a short hike to the river I head to an old familiar honey hole—a stretch at a bend in the river below a series of rapids that deepens and slows the current providing a perfect spot for hungry fish.
Thanks to the frigid temperatures earlier in the week, there is a shelf of ice extending three feet out into the river, necessitating some fancy footwork to reach the water without slip sliding away into a cold bath. The water is crystal clear, darkening only where the river deepens, and of course frigid, somewhere in the low 40s. I decide to start with the lighter weight rig with a #16 Tung Teaser and a #16 beadhead CDC Hotwire Green Caddis nymph of my own creation which has been my go-to winter fly for several years now.
They are both tied on a couple of feet below the yellow yarn strike indicator. It’s a good setup to explore the shallower, slower edges of the run just below the rapids where brownies often settle in on a sunny day to warm up and feast in comfort. I unfurl the line and start my cast, only to be unceremoniously whacked in the thigh by a big chunk of ice that has broken loose from above. There is also flow ice out in the current, but it will soon disappear under the warming rays of the sun.
I regather myself and lay a perfect cast just on the inside of the current in a shallow run above. I get a perfect float, but no action. Several more casts, and it’s still no dice. I figure the brownies must be holding deep waiting for the water to warm, so switch to the heavier weighted nymph combo featuring a #12 beadhead weighted Halfback stone fly imitation trailed by the CDC hotwire caddis.
On the first cast into the deeper hole further out the bubble disappears, and I set the hook confidently…on a tree branch on the bottom courtesy of some beavers that have been busy in the area. Luckily I manage to work it loose without disturbing things too much or losing a fly. I recast in almost the same spot and again the bubble disappears as if on cue just as the flies sink in the deeper water. But this time it’s a nice fish on the CDC Caddis. After a worthy to-and-fro tussle with several good runs I ease a respectable 14-inch brown into my net.
With renewed confidence and aplomb, I wade back out pirouetting around several sharp chunks of ice floating down the current that appear large enough to have sunk the Titanic. On the very next cast I hook the bottom again, but as I wade to extricate it this time the bottom begins to move. This is a big one who has taken the faux stone fly, and he immediately heads pell-mell out into the fast current to make good his escape. I put the brakes on him, bending my rod perilously, but manage to turn the brute out of the flow before he can get below me and snap off in the fast current. Then it’s a back and forth brawl as we test each other. Finally I slowly raise him to the surface and smile—at least 18-inches and maybe more. This moment of joy is immediately followed by one of my patented long-distance releases before I can coax the brownie into my net. Grrrr. That will be it in this run despite another 15 minutes of flogging the water thoroughly. Usually I can count on four or five strikes in this hole, but not today.
I continue upstream and come to a medium deep run up against the shoreline that has been productive in the past. The main current is about 30 feet out and strong, but closer in there is slower water that is only two-to-three feet deep in bright sunshine. I switch back to the lighter rig without any weight, and no sooner do the flies hit the water than the yellow yarn strike indicator is yanked under. I set the hook and am onto a feisty 15-inch brown that has inhaled the caddis nymph. He cavorts around the pool before coming in for a quick photo and release.
I check my flies and knots then prepare to cast. But in the hubbub I didn’t see or hear the float fishers—a guy with a lady guide—come careening my way. The river is narrow at this point so she has no option but to slide right down the run that had yielded by latest fish. I return their waves half-heartedly as they slide by. Needless to say, that puts the quietus on that stretch.
Undaunted, I continue around the bend to a sure-bet honey hole that always produces some good fish. I have learned I have to cross over the river to get to the best lie, a deep hole that has been gouged out at the tail end of a long, fast rapid. Although the Ark is only running at 360 cfs, it still demands caution so I pick my way carefully across a shallow stretch 100 feet below the hole using my trusty wading staff for balance.
I walk up the shoreline and start to slide out on the 20-foot ice shelf separating the shore from the water and catch some movement in the rapids above—it’s a lone kayaker bouncing his way down the standing waves. I ask him to stay away on the far bank to avoid floating over my chosen spot. He nods, waves cordially, and slides by with minimal disturbance.
By now it’s time for a snack, so I decide as a precaution to let the honey hole settle down for 15 minutes before probing its depths. I find a nice warm spot on the shoreline with a log to sit and lean up against. I begin musing about fishing in 2021. Will I be able get down to Florida and chase some snook before summer hits? What about my annual trip to the Keys in May to chase big toothy barracuda? My friends don’t call me the Cuda Buddha for nothing. Will there be enough water in Colorado this year so I can explore the Conejos River and other favorite waters of the southern part of the state that suffered so greatly this year from low flows?
A flight of honking Canada Geese snap me out of the daydreaming. It’s time to fish they seem to announce! I tread carefully as I inch out again on the ice shelf and ease into the waist deep icy water on the edge of the pool.
My tootsies immediately protest at the shock of the cold water despite the neoprene booties and three pair of sox! I am using the heavier nymph rig to get down deep to where the lunkers usually hold. I throw a long cast upstream and am immediately reminded why casting a heavy two-nymph rig with split shots and an indicator bubble is such a delight. I have managed to start my forward cast while the aforementioned gear was still flying backwards. The result is a knot of Gordian proportions which takes me 15 minutes to solve accompanied by intermittent epithets before I am back into action. I vow to focus and do less daydreaming.
I take extra care on the next cast, and the flies land perfectly at that top of the pool and start the leisurely float down into the depths. On cue the bubble indicator disappears, and I’m on to a good fish. He bores down deep with the Halfback in his mouth, plows upstream then back down. I head him off before he strays too far, and he slides into the net, a handsome 16-inches, a wild fish with a perfect forked tail, not the nubby variety you see on fish from some heavily fished winter waters like the so-called Dream Stream.
My luck continues and a few casts later I net another 15-incher and soon his twin, both on the caddis nymph. Then I recall that in the past the trout have been hiding out under the ice shelf for cover, darting out to feed. After a couple of tries, I manage to pinpoint my cast so that the rig lands just a few inches from the ice cover. It floats a few feet, and then the bubble is yanked under. It’s a smaller brownie, maybe a foot long, who’s taken the Tung Teaser, but one of the most satisfying of the day.
By now it’s 3 p.m., and the sun is sinking below the trees on the south bank, casting a shadow on the pool. Along with the fleeting warmth, things have quieted down from a piscatorial perspective. I see a small hatch of midges is underway, but no surface activity. I make a note to use a midge imitation like a red zebra nymph on one of my rigs the next time out.
As I exit the water, something dark and out of place catches my eye in a jumble of logs on the shoreline. I stroll over and discover a double-bladed kayak paddle entangled in the timber and brush. I slowly work it free and discover it’s an expensive model in perfect shape, no worse for the wear and exposure. Apparently some kayaker lost it navigating the rapids above when the Ark was roaring earlier in the year. I have to smile, thinking it kind of squares things and is a modicum of payback for all the summer follies visited upon us wade anglers on the Arkansas and other rivers by kayakers, float fishermen, and boaters of various ilk. I think, maybe a little devilishly, I’ll enjoy using it all the more for that reason down in Florida where I kayak fish for snook. We old codgers can have thoughts like that without much remorse.