Texas Creek 2’fer

March 2021

Want to fish a Gold Medal trout river in the morning then after lunch drive a few miles to explore a wilderness creek full of scrappy browns and rainbows hidden in a remote canyon?  Then read on about the Texas Creek 2’fer! 

Halfway between Salida and Canon City, Colorado, at the junction of US 50 and CO 69, stands the former railroad town of Texas Creek hard on the banks of the Arkansas River, my home water. 

Texas Creek And Environs

For years on my way to Denver from Salida I whizzed by the crossroads not paying much attention to the motley assortment of a couple of permanent buildings, sheds, trailers, and outdoor paraphernalia like rafts and ATVs scattered about.  One morning on the way to the Front Range, at the insistence of my growling stomach, I finally stopped to sample breakfast at Barry’s Den, whose sign promised “howlin’ good cookin’.”  It delivered! 

As I returned sated and several pounds heavier to my SUV I noticed there was a one-lane bridge over the Arkansas.  Curiosity got the better of me, so I crossed the bridge and followed a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) road to the north.  The road eventually swung to the west paralleling the river upstream for several miles.  At the end of the road I jumped out and scrambled down the slope to the water.  My fishing fever soared as I looked at the beautiful runs and pools upstream and down. 

The Texas Creek Area Offers Easy Access To Several Miles Of Good Water On The Arkansas River

Over the next decade I would return several times each year to chase the willing browns and bows that inhabit this productive stretch, all the while keeping an eye out for the big moose who lorded over this territory as if he owned it.  Several times I stumbled onto him lounging in the tall riverside grass and was forced to execute a hasty and wide exit up around him as he cast a baleful eye in my direction. (Caveat–Pay heed to the “no trespassing” signs in this checkerboard of public land interspersed with a few private parcels.)

But the real revelation about would come a decade later when I decided to explore Texas Creek, the small stream that gives the hamlet its name.   Until then I had dismissed the stream as it didn’t appear to amount to much where it flows under US 50 and into the Arkansas, maybe 3 feet wide and overgrown by streamside bushes.   

All that changed a few months ago when I took a nature hike several miles north of the junction towards Westcliffe off of CO 69.  The outing was organized by GARNA (Greater Arkansas River Nature Association) and led by a knowledgeable young BLM biologist.  The focus was on the life and habitat of pinon jays, but my mind started wandering about Texas Creek that lay somewhere to the west, hidden in a rugged canyon. 

Texas Creek Hides From View In A Rugged Canyon

As the erstwhile birders in the group questioned him about the lives and loves of the raucous jays, I of course quizzed him about Texas Creek and potential piscatorial inhabitants.  He said he had heard the creek was definitely fishable.  Game on! 

Crafty Coot Pumps Guide For Fishing Secrets While Birders Distracted

Back home later that week I started doing my homework.  Like most towns in this area it has a fascinating history featuring cattle drives, outlaws, railroads, and mining.  Exhibit one is the story of how the area came to be called Texas Creek.  In the late 1800s two cattlemen from Texas, Joe Lamb and Nat Rich, drove a big herd of longhorn cattle from Texas towards a payoff in the booming mining town of Leadville, where beef was almost as valuable as gold to the hungry miners.  Having traveled almost 500 miles over several weeks and with another 100 to go, they decided to camp by a creek near its confluence with the Arkansas River.  During the night, as the tale goes, a mountain lion spooked the herd and stampeded it up and down the valley, some never to be seen again.  Old Joe and Nat decided to name the stream Texas Creek in their honor.  For the next couple of decades the remote area provided cover for outlaws such as the notorious McCoy gang that rustled cattle, held up stage coaches, and when the railroad was built up the Arkansas River from Canon City in the 1880s, even robbed trains.  Infamous bad guys Jesse James and Kid Curry reputedly rode with the gang, whose name lives on in McCoy Gulch a few miles to the west. 

Outlaw Hideout In McCoy Gulch

By 1880 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had been pushed through the Royal Gorge and built a station at Texas Creek.  In 1900 the railroad built a spur from Texas Creek to the mining and cow town of Westcliffe twenty miles uphill to the south.  To make the sharp turn up the valley in a big loop from the Arkansas River required the building of an enormous and impressive bridge that was 648 feet long and 95 feet high!  The old grade can still be seen on the flanks of the canyon. 

By 1920 Texas Creek was a bustling railroad center sporting a depot, section house, a general story, a one-story schoolhouse, and cabins and homes.

Texas Creek In The Early 1900s

However by 1930s the spur was abandoned and the town began its slow decline.  Little of the original settlement remains today.

While this history was intriguing, what really got my angling juices flowing was the prospect of exploring a new remote creek.  The long Colorado winter was coming to an end soon and although I had notched some very good days on Ark the past few months catching some respectable brownies and bows, I was itching to fish a small creek without any other anglers in sight or traffic whizzing by. 

Using Google Earth, I spied a half-dozen access routes into the canyon where the creek nestled upstream, all within five miles of the US 50/CO 69 junction.  Most appeared to be through public BLM Land.  A couple of weeks later during a weekend warm spell I did some on-the-ground corroboration.   

The first access I attempted was off a highway pullout about three miles north of the junction, a single-track rough road with lots of twists and turns through the pinon and juniper forest.  I was glad to have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle as I bounced down the grade.  Ten minutes later I was peering at a beautiful series of beaver ponds, albeit locked in ice.  

In a few spots I could see and hear the stream gurgling by.  I smiled, knowing I’d be back soon.   I explored several other jeep trails, one of which ended up high above the creek, offering a stunning view but far too steep to climb down to the creek, at least for a septuagenarian.  Now I had a couple of backup routes in case the beaver ponds didn’t pan out.

I returned sooner than I contemplated, a week of balmy 60 degree weather luring me to the creek in hopes the ice was gone.  It was a weekend, which I typically avoid like the plague as anglers descend on the Arkansas from all directions.  Indeed as I drove from Salida to Texas Creek, I counted over 40 people fishing or preparing to do so in 30 miles.  I wondered what I would find on the creek in the canyon.

As I rounded the last bend in the access road about 10:30 in the morning, I smiled.  Nary a vehicle nor soul was in sight!  As I exited my SUV in the warm sun and strode toward the water, I was greeted by a squadron of truculent Canada Geese guarding the string of beaver ponds, who objected strenuously to my presence. 

Creek Guards

I smiled even more broadly when I got to the bank of the big pond, happy to find it ice-free as were several others I could see up and downstream. 

However, because of warm weather melting last week’s big snow, they were brim full and out of banks in several spots, washing over the bordering wetlands.  The ponds appeared too deep with banks too mucky to navigate, so I decided to bushwhack downstream on a faint trail on the east edge of the canyon then work my way back up.   When I emerged from the tangle of bushes about a quarter mile downstream, I gazed on what looked to be a surefire bet—a beautiful run below a substantial beaver dam with promising deep water above in the pond.  Then as if a sign from the fishing gods, a caddis fly landed on my hand.  Honest!

All Systems GO!!

My lightweight 8-foot, 4-weight rod was rigged up with two nymphs below a yellow yarn strike indicator with no weight.  The top fly was a #18 Tung Teaser imitating the mayflies nymphs I found under the streams rocks, and the trailing one a #18 CDC beadhead caddis larva, a reasonable facsimile of the little green buggers crawling about the streambed. 

Texas Creek Treats (clockwise from top center): Tung Teaser, CDC Beadhead Caddis, and Sparkle Caddis Larva

With great confidence I waved my wand back and forth, and the flies gently alighted in the pool below the dam and came floating back down in a beautiful run flecked with foam, an almost sure sign of fish to come.

Surprisingly an hour later the air was redolent with the odor of Mephitis mephitis (aka skunk).  Despite numerous casts into alluring deep pools, perfect looking eddies, and stretches that screamed fish, I had exactly zero strikes and saw only one miniscule fish darting to safety, and couldn’t even swear that it was a trout.

As I got back to my SUV thoughts of bagging the creek and heading down to the Arkansas River were floating through my head.  But I decided to persist and try another section downstream at another access point I had spotted. 

Within 15 minutes I was pulling up to the creek a mile or so downstream from the beaver pond debacle.  I stepped cautiously down from the parking area to a fine-looking stretch where the creek plunged past a big mid-stream boulder into a fine looking pool where I immediately caught saw the flash of a small trout feeding on the bottom.  Bingo! 

Act Two: Hope Springs Eternal

I began to unfurl my rig to cast, but noticed an old campfire on the bank a few feet downstream and some old boot marks on the sandy shoreline.  I decided to explore downstream where there might have been less pressure, and where Google Earth promised some good-looking bend pools.  I crossed over the creek and picked up the faint trail on the north side.  Within 100 yards that track had disappeared entirely, and from then on I wouldn’t see another boot mark. 

Into The Wilds

The valley was nice and wide for about a half mile downstream, allowing the sun to bathe the creek and offering easy walking.  Then the canyon walls began to pinch in and the going got rougher with thorny bushes and a thicket of willows calling for some serious bushwhacking.  Finally I came to a jumble of big boulders along the creek flanked by what looked to be an impenetrable tangle of vegetation extending up the canyon walls.  I also noticed the pesky bushes had eaten my caddis fly somewhere along the way.  That was a signal to stop, rerig, and go fishing. 

I scrambled up on the boulders, one of which was car-sized, to get a good look at the creek.  Ten feet below me was a tempting plunge pool that couldn’t be accessed from below and blocked upstream by the sheer canyon wall. 

Lair Of The Big Bow

It was going to be tough to cast down into the pool and allow my flies to drift into the quiet eddy just outside the raging main current.  After a couple of practice efforts I figured out how to get a drift into the quiet water without dragging the flies pell mell downstream.  On the fourth cast my yellow yarn strike indicator disappeared, and I set the hook on a…. jagged rock hidden below the surface.  This was not going well.  After several fruitless efforts to free the snag, I executed a last-ditch effort roll cast and miraculously the fly came loose.  I started to give up but a last-second death wish took hold, and I attempted yet another cast into the maelstrom below.  As if on cue, the strike indicator disappeared in about the same spot, and I lifted the rod slowly hoping to disengage from the rock, but to my great surprise a large rainbow, maybe 16-inches or more, thrashed to the surface with the caddis larva in this mouth.  He dove and went deep as I started to wonder how I would ever bring him in, perched as I was high above the pool.  Then the bow jumped, and I executed a perfect long-distance release, rendering the issue moot. 

As I sat on the rocks licking my wounds, I looked upstream at the next pool.  From there on up for quite a piece the water was much shallower and clearer.  There were also a few caddis and other bugs winging above the surface.  Maybe, I mused, time to try a dry-dropper rig—a caddis dry on top which would also serve as a strike indicator for the caddis nymph below.  This rig would be much more manageable and easier to cast under the big broken tree branch guarding the puddle above.   Problem was, I soon discovered, I had left all my dry fly boxes at home given the fact I hadn’t needed to use a dry during the past few months of winter fishing which is almost strictly subsurface.  I continued to paw through every nook and cranny of my fly vest and somewhat miraculously discovered a #16 Stimulator misplaced in corner of a nymph box.  It would be a passable imitation of those caddis flies.

I lowered myself carefully from the boulders and crept stealthily towards the pool upstream, then crossed over the creek to get a better casting angling under the tree branch. 

Lair Of The Big Brownie

There I caught a glance of some movement in the shallows, a hefty brown trout about 14-inches finning nonchalantly as it picked off food floating by.  I knelt down slowly and made a perfect cast (maybe lucky?) under the clutching branch.  The dry floated slowly over the fish, which I expected would grab the nymph, but instead he rose slowly and sucked in the dry.  I set the hook, and the brown took off for shelter in the deeper reaches of the pool above.  I put on the brakes, my rod doubled over, and slowly worked him back towards me, my net at the ready.  The fish would have none of it and cavorted around the shallows until he finally flipped off.  Was this going to be the story of the day??  Now I was 0 for 2 on two good-sized fish.

But soon I redeemed myself.  I executed another sidearm cast that landed further up under the branch near the head of the pool.  Almost instantly the dry disappeared, and I was onto another feisty brown.  He came in for a quick photo and release, a respectable 12-inches.  I missed another strike and then connected with another brown before moving on.

Scrappy Brown Trout Ends Shutout

Around the bend I was greeted by a long, straight stretch of water with promising pockets here and there behind rocks in the creek.  But the current proved to be too strong to get any kind of decent drift. 

No sooner would the flies hit the quieter water behind a rock where fish usually reside than they would be dragged downstream at warp speed.  A couple of fish did flash at the flies as they rode the cascade, but I came up empty.

Another 100 yards upstream I came to a larger, promising plunge pool that offered more depth and a back eddy with quiet water.  I could see several trout swimming back and forth, feeding just off the main current.  Problem was that I would again have to kneel and use a sidearm cast to avoid a big overhanging tree branch as well as brush on the opposite bank. 

Bring Your “A” Casting Game To Texas Creek

My first two casts swung too far to the left of the tail end of the pool allowing the flies to be dragged under by the current.  But the third was right on target.  The flies floated over and then past the fish, but then one turned in hot pursuit and nailed the nymph.  It was another brownie, this one about 11-inches.  A twin soon followed.

Texas Creeks Brownies Are Eager and Feisty–If You Can Reach Their Hideouts

Next I crossed back over to the opposite bank and walked further up to try the big eddy that swirled against the far bank.  The flies alighted gently and then spun upstream in the eddy, reached the top near the water cascading in the pool and drifted slowly down on the current’s edge.  Suddenly the dry disappeared unceremoniously, dragged under by a brownie that was hugging the bottom in the quieter water.  I quickly caught two more—all 10-12-inches—and missed a couple before things went quiet.

Above, the creek curved back to the north and offered some attractive pools where the water careened against boulders.  But there proved to be too heavy a flow to get a decent drift.  I made a mental note to revisit these pools when the early runoff had subsided a bit. 

Now I was nearing my SUV where I had started a couple of hours ago.  There was one more long, deep pool inviting below it, created by a small beaver dam.  I crept up below the dam, keeping a low profile, and unfurled a long cast upstream. 

I was surprised there were no takers.  Same result the next five casts, so I scaled the dam and worked towards the little waterfall at the head of the pool.  Still no action even though the water look inviting, deep enough to hid a fish and not too fast.  Then I saw a possible reason.  The lower branches of a streamside tree had been snapped off in several  places, undoubtedly by another angler several days earlier. 

That was a sign to retreat to my SUV and the lunch that awaited along with my usual RC Cola elixir.  But as I came to the clearing around that first pool where I started, I again saw some small trout flashing on the bottom.  I decided to postpone lunch for a few minutes and was rewarded when a scrappy small brown darted out and nailed the nymph—a good appetizer for the feast awaiting.

After a relaxing and pleasant lunch lounging in the sun in my camp chair, I decided to reconnoiter upstream.  I found some promising looking pools and runs, but they were blown out as the runoff picked up steam.  Next time!

Miles Of Water To Explore Upstream

But who’s complaining?!  I didn’t see another angler all day, the scenery was spectacular, and the fish were eager, obviously not having seen many faux flies.  I left with a big grin on my face, already planning a Texas Creek  2’fer for April, fishing the Big Ark before noon and then the creek after lunch… and vowing to solve the puzzle of those picture-perfect beaver ponds!!

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.

img_3993-1
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

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.

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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