Goodbye To A River: A Sweet Afternoon On The Big Ark Near Salida, CO

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.

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Early October Snow Cools Fishing Fever!

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.

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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.

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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….

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Happy New Year: Going Balmy In The Balmy Banana Belt (near Salida, CO)

“Nothing Makes A Fish Bigger Than Almost Being Caught!”

December 30, 2017

Some of my cheeky friends accuse me of being a tad balmy for my dedication to piscatorial pursuits.  Just to confirm these suspicions, I decided this last week of 2017 to take advantage of balmy weather in Colorado’s Banana Belt to chase trout several times in the Big Ark River around Salida, Colorado.

Locals use the term “Banana Belt” somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  At an elevation of some 7,500 feet, Salida admittedly does not have tropical or even subtropical weather any time of year.  But in truth, it is a remarkably warm high mountain  valley when compared to surrounding alpine communities–Fairplay, Gunnison, Saguache–just over the passes to the north, west, and south.  They are truly frigid!  Indeed, this past couple of weeks we have been just as warm in Salida, and often much warmer, than mile-high Denver.  The temps pushed 60 degrees several times.  That’s not to say the fishing is a snap.  Some tips follow that may put a big rainbow trout or brown on your line before winter really arrives.

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