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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Ringing In The New Year With Some Big Bad Boys: An Arkansas River Bash

January 3, 2018

I’m standing in the ice-cold Arkansas River just after noon watching my little white bubble strike indicator bob slowly downstream.  After barely making it to midnight on New Year’s Eve before crashing, I resolved to get out among some Banana Belt bad boys early in 2018 for a little fun.  So here I am, decked out in my finest New Year’s costume, ready to party.  It’s a balmy 46 degrees, not bad for early January at 7,500 feet.

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Decked Out For Arkansas River New Year’s Costume Party

Then wham!!  Something slams into me, almost knocking me off my feet.  It’s not a fish, but a big chunk of ice four feet long, one that could sink a small boat.  The cold weather the last few nights has frozen up the shallows, and now as the sun shines and temps rise into the upper 40s, big pieces are breaking off and flowing downstream in the fast current. I dance around trying to evade some more chunks while keeping one eye on the strike indicator…which I notice seems to have disappeared.  I reflexively lift my rod tip quickly and feel the surge of a good fish.  So begins my first outing of the New Year with what will prove to be some big bad boy brown trout on the Arkansas River near Salida.

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

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

December 30, 2017

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

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

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The Ice Man Cometh–And With Him A Time To Reflect On 2017 And Hopes For 2018

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not the fish they are after.”  Henry David Thoreau

December 19, 2017

The Ice Man Cometh this weekend sayeth the weatherman….so time to sneak away for one last outing in the water and dances with trout.  With 50 degree weather and light winds in the forecast, I decide to visit my home water, the Arkansas River just upstream from Salida.  I know a stretch where the valley is broad and the sunshine plentiful, even in winter, and hopefully the fish cooperative.

When I arrive at just after noon after a short 15-minute drive from my cabin, I am treated to a picture-perfect scene, abundant sunshine, and no ice flow on the river.  Two weeks ago several  nights of single digit temperatures had clogged up the water with ice, but now it’s flowing freely, at least for a couple of more days.

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The Arkansas River Below Big Bend

I used that spate of cold weather profitably, hunkering down inside with the fireplace going to tie up a bunch of my favorite fly pattern for the upcoming season—a concoction I created called a green hotwire beadhead caddis.  Naturally, it’s a simple tie—I am no Rembrandt at the fly-tying vise.  But it works, and how!!

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This Vise Is An Eminently Acceptable Vice To Pursue
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Hotwire Beadhead Caddis Nymph

I wade into one of my familiar reliable pools, the water frigid despite wearing three pairs of socks underneath my neoprene waders.  On my third cast the little yellow yarn strike indicator, below which dangle two nymphs, hesitates ever so slightly.  I lift my rod slowly and it’s FISH ON!  Just a little brownie, but a good start.  No skunk for me on this final 2017 outing.

For the next hour or so, I have a ball laying out long casts over the crystal clear water.  At the end of the year fly casting becomes so natural, so easy, so graceful that it’s a treat in itself to watch the line unfurl, and the tiny flies alight delicately on the water exactly where the cast was aimed.  A bonus is hooking an occasional trout.  The first half-dozen are small (all on the beadhead caddis except for one on a big stonefly nymph), but then a nice 14-inch brown surprises me by nailing the caddis in a shallow, fast mid-stream run where the fish are not supposed to be this time of year.

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Trout On Ice

Usually they retreat to deeper pools where the slow-moving water is warmer.  Then if to prove the point, 15 minutes later an even bigger, stronger 15-inch rainbow gobbles the caddis nymph in a deeper hole off the main current.

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Chunky Rainbow Provides Exclamation Point For 2017 Angling Adventures

As I release the shiny beauty, I take a seat on the bank and reflect on what a wonderful world we have and what a wonderful year 2017 has been thanks to family, friends, and yes, fish.  Great gifts and a refuge in turbulent times.  My little sweetheart of a granddaughter, Aly, went from baby to toddler in a flash, and along the way exhibited a strong predilection for running water and playing in creeks.  Sure way to grandpa’s heart!!

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My Sweetheart Aly–That’s a Stick In Her Hand, Not A Flyrod…Yet!

I have had many great adventures in the wilds this year, alone and with friends.  Solitude and pristine nature abounded and surrounded me, kept me peaceful and sane.  It has been written that fishing is a perpetual series of occasions of hope, elusive but attainable.  And so it is with life.  2017 has been a wonderful year, and I see hope on the water and in the world for 2018.  My best to all my readers, compatriots, and friends for the New Year.  Here is a tribute to 2017 in pictures….indeed a wonderful world!!