Revised and updated December 2021
For some of my earlier posts on fishing the Arkansas in winter, see links below:
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 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.
The second stretch runs from the Stockyard Bridge down to the hamlet of Cotopaxi, approximately 25 miles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!