Casing The Joint Part Deux: The Inside Skinny On Winter Fishing On The Upper Arkansas River

Revised and updated December 2021

For some of my earlier posts on fishing the Arkansas in winter, see links below:

https://hooknfly.com/2020/12/12/arkansas-river-reverie/

https://hooknfly.com/2018/01/06/ringing-in-the-new-year-with-some-big-bad-boys-an-arkansas-river-bash/

The upper Arkansas around Salida is not the first river most Colorado anglers think about for fly fishing when winter descends.   More likely they will be part of the crowds from Denver and Colorado Springs that elect to chase trout on the tailwaters of the South Platte or the lower Arkansas near Pueblo.  By the photos they post on Facebook of impressive PB rainbows and browns, they do pretty darn well.

But those rivers and their throngs are just not my cup of tea. Fortunately winter is the time to escape the summer hordes that overrun my home water the Arkansas—rafters, kayakers, paddle boarders, float fishermen, and other assorted hoi polloi. Come December is when I get my PBS (personal best solitude) plus feisty wild fish on the Big Ark. But to be successful requires a vastly different approach than the tailwaters noted above—the Ark is a free-flowing, high-elevation river with colder water and where weather is more important on a day-to-day basis, not to mention the preferred trout victuals that differ as well.

In consultation with intergalactic fishing gurus and through keen observation, casing the river carefully since the 1990s (and more often just through the school of hard knocks), I have come up with some insights for the winter angler who wants to get away from it all while still scoring some good fish.

Getting The Lay Of The River:   When I write of the “upper” Arkansas, I mean the productive stretch from just above Salida downstream about 42 miles to Texas Creek.  Further up north towards Buena Vista and Leadville much of the river is either private or freezes over more frequently.  You can catch fish there, but not on as a consistent basis.  I divide the upper Ark into three distinct stretches.

First is the area upstream of Salida called the Big Bend where the river makes a hard turn to the north.  It extends down to the Stockyard Bridge just below the town, a total distance of about 10 miles. 

The Big Bend Stretch West Of Salida

The valley opens wide here which allows a lot more sun to reach the water. While it gets more pressure than the other two stretches, the Big Bend offers more comfortable and consistent angling days because of abundant sunshine throughout the winter. However if the wind is gusting, the Big Bend is more open this making casting more difficult. The State of Colorado holds several fishing easements here to provide good access, and the stretch also offers stunning views of the Mount Shavano and the Collegiate Peaks not to mention easy access to libations and chow in Salida. The valley’s main fly shop, ArkAnglers, is located nearby along U.S. 50 on the outskirts of town.

Great Scenery To Go Along With Plentiful Sunshine InThe Big Bend

The second stretch runs from the Stockyard Bridge down to the hamlet of Cotopaxi, approximately 25 miles.

Second Stretch Features More Canyon Terrain

There are a few areas in this stretch where the valley widens, for example around Howard, but for the most part it is characterized by steep canyon walls on either or both sides of the river that limit the amount of sunlight. As a result, deeper and slower sections are often frozen over, and the hours of fishing often very limited to two or three midday. Public and private lands are intermixed throughout this section. Please note that there are special regulations in place in the middle section from the Stockyard Bridge (Chaffee CR 102) just below Salida downstream 7.5 miles to the confluence with Badger Creek–artificial flies and lures only and all rainbow and cutbow trout must be returned to the water immediately.

Steeper Gradient And Towering Canyon Walls Call For Different Tactics On Stretch 2
Hefty, Hard-Fighting Bows Call Stretch 2 Home

The third section runs seven miles from Cotopaxi to Texas Creek. Here the valley opens up again in a number of places, although not as wide as above Salida, and the gradient is somewhat less steep. Just above Texas Creek there is a prime stretch with BLM public access where the canyon walls peel way back on both sides of the river to allow abundant sunshine to warm the water.

The Wide Open Valley Just Above Texas Creek Offers Plenty Of Sunshine And Public Access

For more information about public access on the three sections, see the excellent web site of ArkAnglers, our fine local fly shop at www.arkanglers.com.

CASING THE JOINT:  I have come up with eight tips or rules for winter fishing on the Big Ark, gleaned from my forays up and down the river conducting piscatorial research the past 30 years.  Here they are:

Rule #1—Pay Attention To Water Temperature And Levels: While I always look ahead for days where mild daytime temperatures are in the forecast for one of my outings, it is actually more important to focus on night temperatures in the valley two or three days before you fish. While Salida is called the “banana belt” because its daytime temperatures are much balmier than South Park or the Gunnison valley to the west, it still sits at 7,500 feet and nighttime temperatures can plunge into the single digits. When they do, you can count on many sections to freeze over and for slush ice and floating icebergs to make fishing annoying at best and often impossible.

Ice Can Form Quickly In the “Banana Belt” After A Couple Of Cold Nights

I find that when two or three days preceding my foray nighttime temperatures are in the mid-twenties followed by daytime highs in the upper thirties and above, I can count on more consistent and pleasant fishing. As an aside, note that temperatures above Salida are often warmer at night than the lower two sections.

Water levels are another factor to consider. I find flows between 225 and 300 cfs are ideal to maintain adequate flows and depths in productive pools and runs while allowing the adventuresome angler to cross to the other side of the river (away from US 50 highway) where there is much less pressure. (See Rule #4 below.) To find current water levels on the Arkansas at Salida and downstream at Wellsville, google “Colorado Water Talk” and search for the gauging stations at those two locations.

Finding Sun-Bathed Pools Is Key–Especially In Canyon Stretches

Rule #2—Sunny Stretches Are Almost Always Better Than Those In The Shade: In bright, sunny Colorado, most anglers who fish in the summer know to seek out honey holes with some shade where the trout can hide away from prying eyes and enjoy cooler water. In the winter it’s just the opposite. Rarely do I catch fish in deeper holes, where one might expect fish to be hanging low in warmer water, IF those holes are shaded most of the day. Many times I have been reminded of this when a deep pool I have been catching fish out of goes immediately to sleep when the sun dips behind a ridge or canyon wall. Might as well head home then.

And don’t be surprised if in a shallow stretch in full sun you find fish, particularly brown trout, warming themselves while they pick off food floating by. Stealth is the key in these stretches as well as a tailored shallow-water nymph rig as discussed below.

The best stretch to find sun is the Big Bend above Salida where the valley is several miles wide and the sun bathes it early then until late in the day (i.e., 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. ) Fortunately, there are a number of state fishing easements that provide access to the Ark up- and downstream from the Big Bend. On the other two stretches below Salida I find it a good idea to scout the day before to pinpoint specific sections that bask in the sun and what time old Sol hits the water (usually not before 10 a.m.) and when it disappears (typically by 2:30 p.m. at the latest). A good rule of thumb is that north/south stretches will get more sun longer than east/west ones. Also, if the canyon walls on the side of the river opposite the highway recede, that means more morning sun. If on the highway side they recede it indicates more afternoon sun.

Once you locate a sunny stretch of water, the traditional approach is to dredge heavily weighted nymphs through deep holes off the main current where the water is warmer and the cold-blooded, slow-moving winter trout don’t have to expend as much energy to grab a meal. That tactic generally works when the weather has been cold for an extended period, but there are exceptions. Warm weather in the winter—say in the 40s and 50s—will have trout venturing into shallower areas–sometimes only a foot or two deep–to soak up the warming sun and even into faster-moving riffles to pick off caddis larvae and stonefly nymphs zipping by downstream in the early afternoon. Several years ago during early winter warm spells I caught exactly zero fish in holes deeper than four feet. Most were caught on unweighted nymphs in water 2-3 feet deep.

Rule #3—When You Catch A Fish, Stay Put:  During the winter, trout are usually concentrated in or near deep holes for warmth and safety.  If you catch one, you can pretty much bet more are there.  I plumb the depth of these pools, but also recognize the fish will venture out in adjacent runs carrying more food, especially when it’s sunny. 

Work Those Deep Pools And Adjacent Runs In The Sun Thoroughly!

I skip most fast stretches and long, shallow slicks that rarely hold winter trout. When you do approach a likely looking pool, take it nice and slowly. Winter water is exceptionally clear, and often I spot fish finning contentedly in front of me, giving me a leg up for placing that perfect cast. One other lie that shouldn’t be overlooked is under ice shelves extending out into a pool.

Trout will often hide under the shelves for cover and dart out to snatch food tumbling by.  Every year I catch a few nice ones by placing a cast a few inches from the edge of a shelf and letting it drift slowly and enticingly by these crafty fish.

Rule #4—The Grass Is Greener And Fishing Better On The Other Side:  A corollary of Rule #2 is to get on the other side of the river away from Highway 50 that parallels the Ark below Salida.  The south/highway side of the river gets far more pressure than the less accessible north.  At lower flows in the winter, wading across the river is possible with all due care, and there are bridges and roads here and there that give access to the north shore.

Rule #5–Assiduously Avoid Sections Near Campgrounds: I avoid sections of the Arkansas within one-fourth mile of commercial RV campgrounds and several camp sites designated by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), a 152-mile stretch of the river under joint state and federal management. The AHRA is a well-intentioned idea and government vehicle created in 1989 to protect and manage the upper section of the Arkansas River. While it has notched some major accomplishments like maintaining better water flows and reining in the flotillas of rafters, the result (when coupled with state’s recognition of the river as a Gold Medal water) has sometimes been the opposite. Compared to 30 years ago before the AHRA, hordes more people descend on the area, especially on weekends. Unfortunately the AHRA and associated state and federal agencies simply do not have enough people to manage the area effectively–indeed I have never run into a ranger or other AHRA personnel on the river, only emptying trash bins at rafting put-in points. Fortunately the AHRA has started to limit scattered dry camping to recently improved rustic sites with tent pads and metal fire pits. However, the river in these areas still gets pounded.

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Beautiful Stretch Of Ark Near AHRA Campground–With Fish MIA

A good example of what has gone wrong in the early 1990s can be seen on a mile-long section of the river below Wellsville.  It was my favorite stretch, hard to get to, and loaded with good browns and rainbows.  Then the AHRA improved access, built some attractive campgrounds for RVs, and designated a couple of primitive camping areas along the river, but imposed no restrictions on bait fishing or limits on the size of fish that could be caught and killed beyond the state’s minimal requirements.  Surprise! This once great area is practically fished out compared to the good old days.

On a trip there last fall I had two strikes in four hours, caught one fish, and saw only one other where I used to see and catch and release dozens in the clear water.  To make matters worse, the land has been stripped of downed timber for firewood and paths cut willy-nilly up and down the steep banks.  The area has been loved to near death.  Colorado is predicted to add another million people in the coming decades.  I wonder whether the body politic will be smart enough to protect what we have and even add more parks and wild areas to the public realm plus fund the caretakers to watch over them??  Ok, enough pontificating.  Back to the fishing.

Rule #6:  Walk Softly And Carry Two Big Sticks–I always carry two rods on the Arkansas.  In the winter on the first I rig an 8 ½ foot #4 rod with two small nymphs about 2 feet below a featherweight yellow yarn strike indicator with no split shot. At times I will add a small shot and a small bubble. 

Rule #7: Caddis And Stoneflies Are The Favorite Winter Meals, But Don’t Overlook Midges During A Hatch—In contrast to the South Platte and winter tailwaters where the food ranges from microscopic midges to larger leeches, it’s important to keep in the mind that caddis and stoneflies c dominate the trout diet on the Arkansas. That’s not to say occasionally you will see an afternoon midge hatch and even witness a few risers or that a midge nymph or emerger won’t work, especially on the warmer upper section, but day in and day out caddis and stones are the go-to flies. For caddis I prefer #16-18 beadhead sparkle caddis larva or one of my own creations, a beadhead green hotwire CDC caddis larva. For larger stones I go with a #10-14 halfback stone, a twenty-incher, or a conehead golden stone with legs. On the lighter nymph rig I will substitute a #14-16 Tung Teaser as the stone imitation. Standard midge nymph patterns such as red and black zebras and mercury (#18-22) and midge emergers such as the Top Secret and zebra emerger work well on occasion, especially during hatch.

I employ this rig to target fish in shallower, slower runs off the main current using smaller caddis (#18) and stonefly nymphs (#12-16). On the second, an 8 1/2-foot #5 weight heavier rod, I tie on a weighted (#10-12) stonefly nymph trailed by a #16-18 caddis nymph. See Rule #7 below for more on fly patterns. To this rig I add a plastic bubble strike indicator and a couple of BB split shot. The strike indicator is set high on the 5X leader to allow the nymphs to dredge the bottom in deeper holes. It is critical to experiment throughout the day with depth and weight on each of these rigs.

Clockwise From Top Center: Halfback Stone, Beadhead Sparkle Caddis Larva, Red Zebra Midge, Conehead Stone, CDC Caddis Larva, and Tung Teaser.

Rule #8—Don’t Forget Warm Togs And Other Essential Gear:  It goes without saying but is still worth a mention–even on a day where the air temperature is in the 40s or 50s, the water in the Big Ark will still be ice cold, near freezing. 

The Well-Tailored Winter Angler

Consequently, I am a big fan of old-fashioned neoprene waders which are apparently a bit out of style. I bumped into a couple of younger anglers on the stream in last November who asked me what I was wearing–they had never seen or heard of neoprene waders. Believe me, they are much warmer than light-weight breathable waders no matter how many layers you put on underneath.

Secret Neoprene Wader Cache

I wear fishing pants and long johns under the neoprenes to stay toasty warm. And don’t forget socks–at least 3 pair (liner, wool, heavy wool). Up top I can usually get by with a polypro t-shirt, polypro long-sleeve shirt, nylon fishing shirt, and a light rain jacket. I slip on a buff over my head and wear a heavy fishing cap. I stuff a pair of fingerless fishing gloves in my vest just in case along with a stocking cap.

I also strongly recommend felt soles or cleats on the Arkansas which features odd-sized river rocks to stumble over and a strong current even when low. As a concession to my aging body, I have recently added a four-piece collapsible wading staff to my basic gear to help avoid slipping and taking a dunking. The wading staff is not only a life saver in the river but also in navigating the steep and often snow-covered slopes down to the water, especially in the middle section, as well as the slick ice shelfs that must be traversed on the river’s edge to get to the water. Of course you will need a net to handle the 18” plus bows and browns you will hook if you follow these eight essential rules!

Arkansas River Reverie

Mid-December 2020

For my latest 2021 article on winter fishing tips for the Arkansas River, see the following:

https://hooknfly.com/2021/01/23/casing-the-joint-the-inside-skinny-on-winter-fishing-on-the-upper-arkansas-river/

For some of my earlier winter outings on the Arkansas River, see the following articles:

https://hooknfly.com/2017/12/31/happy-new-year-going-balmy-in-the-balmy-banana-belt-near-salida-co/

https://hooknfly.com/2018/01/06/ringing-in-the-new-year-with-some-big-bad-boys-an-arkansas-river-bash/

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. 

My Little Sweetheart And #1 Fishing buddy

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. 

Honey Hole #1

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. 

Go-To Arkansas River Winter Nymph–Beadhead CDC Hotwire Caddis

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. 

Fantastic Four (clockwise): CDC Caddis, Red Zebra Midge,
Tung Teaser, and Halfback Stone Fly

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.   

Nice Brownie Breaks The Ice

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. 

Another Brownie Falls For the CDC Caddis Nymph

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. 

Sizing Up Honey-Hole #2

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. 

Off The Shelf And Into The Water

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. 

Wild Brownie Warms Up Winter Day

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.

Sweet Revenge: Tale Of The Prodigal Paddle

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.

Continue reading

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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Badger Creek Act Deux: Steer Creek To Gribbles Run (near Salida, CO)

A friend once made the heartening observation—

“It is always easy to say something nice about fishing.”   Charles Goodspeed 

June 2018                                                                                                                      

Note:  For Act One and other outings on Badger Creek, see my October and December 2017 articles about fall fishing on Badger Creek.

https://hooknfly.com/2017/12/05/badger-creek-legend-of-the-late-fall-1-near-salida-co/amp/

 Late last fall I explored the upper reaches of Badger Creek just off the Ute Trail in Gribbles Park, about an hour’s drive from Salida.  I had an interesting day boulder hopping downstream for about a mile to where the little rivulet Steer Creek gurgles down the hillside into Badger.  I fished back upstream through a series of beautiful pools and caught a couple of dozen brownies, a few going 13 inches.  Now I’m back aiming to explore the second mile of the creek as it continues its journey through a scenic canyon to join the Arkansas River 15 miles downstream.

I’m on the road early at 7 a.m., the forecast for more dry, sunny and warm weather.  I’m kicking up dust clouds on Chaffee County Road 175/82 and then the Ute Trail (Fremont County Road 2), reflecting the serious drought gripping the region.  I haven’t been able to check the water level on Badger Creek since there is no state or federal flow gauges, so I have more than a little trepidation that there may not be enough water to float a trout.

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Red Marker On Left Indicates BLM Parking Area On Badger Creek

The drive is as scenic as I remembered it, and the first view of Gribbles Park where Badger Creek arises, is a stunner, a quintessential western landscape with a broad valley, ridges, and peaks in the distance.

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Gribbles Park Vista

The Badger Creek basin is chock full of history.  The Utes hunted here as witnessed by the discovery of a buffalo jump, a cliff formation used by the Utes to drive herds en masse to their death.  One of the nearby peaks is reputed to be where they held vision quests.  Ira Mulock rode into the valley in 1870s with a herd of cattle up from Texas and started the historic IM Ranch, one of the first mountain spreads in this part of Colorado.  Tales of range wars over grass and water followed.  Today it is operated as Badger Creek Ranch, a working cattle/dude ranch. Lon and Badger Gribble were two other prominent early ranchers, leaving their names on the valley and the creek itself.

My first glimpse of the creek as it parallels the Ute Trail is not encouraging.  It never runs heavy, except after a big rain, but it’s hardly a trickle, and the flow is a sickly cloudy green.  I cross over the creek and take a right off of the Ute Trail into a sizable parking area on BLM land.

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BLM Parking Area Off The Ute Trail Just After Road Cross Badger Creek

It’s taken me over an hour to make the drive so I’m anxious to get on the trail.  I could probably wet wade, but knowing there are some deep pools, I decide to pull on my lightweight chest waders and new Simms Vapor boots, the best designed wading/hiking boots I’ve ever owned—very comfortable if you intend to take a long walk in to a stream as I often do.  I navigate through the sturdy fence in the designated spot, then catch my first glimpse of the creek.  While I was prepared for low water, my jaw still drops.  A toddler could jump over the creek.

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First Impressions Can Be Deceiving…Keep The Faith!

But I know things will get better only a quarter mile or so downstream where at the bottom of a cliff the Big Springs kick in.  Sure enough, as I round the first bend and walk into the meadow, I see flotillas of vegetation around the mouth of the spring and hear a little bit of a roar.  Hallelujah.  There’s even more water than last fall—I estimate the creek is running somewhere between 15 and 20 cfs, plenty of water, and it’s cold and clear.

As I follow the trail on the north side of the creek up and down over a couple of ridges, I vow not to stop and sample the pools below that produced some good trout last fall.  I have a lot of ground to cover—over two miles–down to Gribbles Run meadow.  I am already huffing and puffing, as the creek takes a hard turn to the south, and the trail descends to a stream crossing at the edge of a boulder field.

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Alluring Boulder Strewn Pools Of Upper Badger Creek

This calls  for my best mountain goat imitation to scale the rocks on the other bank.  Caveat:  Make sure you bring a hiking or wading staff—you’ll be glad you did, especially for the hike down to Steer Creek.

I’m a little winded now, and losing my resolve, decide to take a short break and sample one of the tempting pools upstream of Steer Creek.  Glad I did.  As my #16 Royal Coachman Trude bobs jauntily down through a  good-looking pool, it suddenly disappears, and I am onto a nice brownie that ate the #18 green hotwire CDC caddis nymph, one of my own creations.  Great start!

 

I manage to catch another smaller one before I hang up my dropper in some of the tall, lush streamside grass.  And it won’t let go no matter what I do.  The grass will plague me all day when I fail to watch my backcast carefully on this narrow little stream.

I continue downstream and then cross back to the west side of Badger and step over little bubbling Steer Creek.  My resolve is again tested as I continue downstream and wade past a couple of enticing, deep emerald-green pools where I can see dozens of fish finning, finally emerging into what I call Ponderosa Park.  Here the canyon walls start to recede a bit, and the creek starts to change character, more of a meadow water with shallow, fast glassy runs and fewer boulders and plunge pools than above.  This is a great spot for lunch, so I stow my little cooler under a beautiful spruce tree in the middle of the park that provides shade and seclusion.

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Great Shady Lunch Spot Under Giant Spruce In Ponderosa Park

Of course I have to sample the creek again, and quickly catch a couple of small, energetic brownies in a straight shallow run, one taking the dry and the other the nymph.

 

It’s here that I start to notice a lot more aquatic vegetation including the infamous Badger Creek Yellow-Green Blobs.  These mats of moss and goo reportedly take over the creek by late summer.  Today they are a minor annoyance, sometimes eating my fly at the end of a drift.

I continue down the trail until it emerges into a broad meadow where Gribbles Run cuts in from the east.  Of course it’s bone dry.  Badger Creek is dramatically different here.  It’s flowing clean and clear, but is more like an eastern spring creek, filled with rafts of floating and submerged vegetation waving in the current, with narrow slots of open water in between.

 

I step into the creek below a little riffle and several nice trout shoot out from under the rafts as well as the undercut banks.  Yikes, this is going to be a challenge.  A fish is rising at the top of the pool, so I loft a cast into the swirl, and immediately hook a nice trout that proceeds to dive into the vegetative sanctuary.  When I finally work my way up to my fly, of course the fish has twisted off.  The next pool results in my nymph dredging one of the green blobs.  As does the next, coating my hook with riverbed detritus.  Fish are rising, indeed jumping out of the water, but ignoring my Trude. Then I see the proverbial sign from above—a hazy cloud of little black Trico mayflies hovering upstream over the next pool.  I can tell there is going to have to be an attitude and fly readjustment at this point.

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Tiny Trico Mayflies Ring Dinnerbell For Trout

I tie on a new rig that has worked well on similar waters like Archuleta Creek, a spring-creek like tributary of Cochetopa Creek near Gunnison, Colorado (See my August 2016 article.).  I tie on a little #20 foam parachute midge that imitates the Tricos trailed 18-inches below by a #18 red zebra midge.

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Below Steer Creek The Black Foam Midge And Red Zebra Nymph (Right and Left) Replace The Trude and Beadhead Caddis As The Go-To Flies (Top and Bottom)

I usually tie my droppers 30-inches below the dry I’m using, but shorten it here to avoid snagging the nymph on shoreline grass when trying to place the dry next to the bank.  Also, the shorter dropper means it is less likely to get caught up in the submerged stream vegetation.  The midge is virtually invisible to the eye on the water, so I tie on a small piece of yellow yarn as a strike indicator about three feet above the dry.  I then sneak up slowly on the next pool where a couple of trout are rising.

 

My first cast alights delicately in the streamside grass, a full five feet from my intended target.  But by the grace of the angling gods, it does not snag and somehow manages to end up in the creek when I give it a prayerful jerk.  And WHAM!  A nice 13-inch brownie cannot resist the dry, and as he cavorts about one of his buddies nails the nymph.  A double!!  I have cracked the code!!

The small dry does not spook the fish in the shallower, crystal clear water, and the tiny zebra midge doesn’t sink as fast as the bigger caddis nymph and thereby avoids getting swallowed up on the submerged vegetation—or at least not as often.   For the next couple of hours I have a blast catching eager brownies in every run and every pool.  Most only go 6-11 inches, but a few healthy 12-13 inchers come to the net.

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Brownies Below Steer Creek Can’t Resist New Fly Combo

As with most small canyon creeks, stealth is still a key.  I do my best to kneel when casting in the creek or get out of the water and cast from the shore where possible.  I still spook a lot of fish—the number of trout in this little creek is astounding, and I see and scare a couple of lunkers that would go 15-inches.

By the time I reach my lunch cooler in Ponderosa Park at 2:30 p.m., I am famished and in need of a good rest.  As I age, I force myself to take 30 minutes for lunch versus the ten minutes allotted in my foolish youth.  Sitting in the shade under the giant spruce, I reflect on how Badger Creek went from a basket case in the 1980s to a beautiful, well-managed water it is today full of well-fed fish.  The great recovery started, as is often the case, after a catastrophic natural disaster.  A major rainstorm hit the area in 1979 and as a result of overgrazing and poor conservation management on both public and private lands upstream, unleashed a tremendous flood.  The flow in the canyon was estimated at 10,000 CFS—that’s five times the flow the mighty Arkansas River carries during spring runoff.  The canyon was scoured and tons of sediment deposited downstream.  In the wake of the flood, federal land managers got together with state officials and local ranchers and worked on a landmark cooperative restoration plan.  Ranchers were offered incentives in the form of cost sharing to fence off significant stretches of the creek from cattle that can trample a streambank into oblivion in a flash.  Ranchers also agreed to rotate their herds to reduce overgrazing, and shorelines were repaired with plantings.  The results can be seen today.  Badger Creek below the Ute Trail has come roaring back!  Not surprisingly, the creek is becoming better known among angling aficionados, but the farther I hiked down the canyon, the fewer boot marks I see and don’t run into any living soul all day!

After downing one last swig of my elixir, a can of venerable RC Cola, I hit the creek again.  It’s getting late, the sun starting to sink behind the cliffs to the west–but I still have those big deep pools just above Ponderosa Park to sample, and I won’t go home until I do.  I mosey down to the creek and am treated to one of those unexpected delights of nature that turn a good day into a memorable–a flight of blue darners, one of my favorite dragonflies, is holding a love-in!  What a sight!!

 

I finally tear myself away from the love bugs and proceed upstream.  I catch several good ones in the first deep pool below a little waterfall.  I proceed to work up to the waterfall where the water is over my waist, and peer into the pool above.  Trout are rising steadily.  I have to execute a tricky backhand cast upstream around a boulder to land the fly in the current, but when I do succeed every time a good trout blasts either  the dry or nymph.  Six trout come out of that beautiful little pool.

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Back-hand Cast Around Boulder = Six Brownies

Then further upstream I arrive at the honey hole that I had crossed just below Steer Creek earlier in the day.  I can see over a dozen smaller fish finning nonchalantly in the shallows below a pool so deep I can’t see the bottom.  I decide to cast over the little guys, hoping I don’t send them fleeing to tattle on me to the bigger ones above.  The flies land in the riffle at the head of the pool, and the faux Trico swirls into the deeper water, then bounces against big boulder that deflects the current.  I watch, mesmerized by the picture-perfect scene, then notice the strike indicator is gone!  I set the hook and feel a good trout shaking his head in the depths.  He slashes back and forth in the pool, giving me time to grab my cell phone from my vest and shoot a video of the fight.  He’s a game one and puts on a good show.  One of the biggest of the day!

 

Now I vow in earnest that he will be the last one.  I have a good half-hour uphill hike in front of me to get back to the SUV and then another hour drive to my cabin in Salida, so need to rock and roll.  But dang, only 10 minutes into the return hike, I spot a pool I fished successfully last fall that has fish dimpling the surface everywhere.  I lecture myself that this will absolutely be the last cast (if I get a fish). And I do.  I wait for a good one to rise, let him settle for a bit, then lay my fly a few feet above where he had shown himself.  And right on cue, the beauty surfaces and gulps in the midge dry.  After a good tussle, the big brownie comes to the net for a quick photo and release.

 

I am smiling broadly—always a good feeling to catch a good fish on that last cast of the day.  I tip my hat to Badger Creek as I hustle back to the parking lot and scoot back to Salida.  Act Deux on Badger Creek has been a good one.  I can’t quibble with what goes on in Gribbles.

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Angling Gods Bestow Blessings On Hard-Working Anglers!

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Back At Cabin Recuperating with Dr. Jose Cuervo

Note:  For information about accommodations and fishing at nearby Badger Creek Ranch, call 719-837-2962.