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 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.

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

Late October 2019

For some earlier articles on fishing the Arkansas River, see my posts from late 2018

I was well into packing up for my annual migration to the Florida Everglades for the winter.  The first snow had already fallen, leaves were falling fast, and the wind had been blowing like a banshee all week, making fly fishing a dangerous sport.

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Early October Snow Cools Fishing Fever!

But then as if by magic, the winds relented and the angling gods beckoned, an irresistible siren’s call.   I hadn’t been out on my old home water, the Arkansas River, that flows close by my cabin near Salida, Colorado, since March.  When I moved to Colorado back in the late 80s, the Big Ark was undiscovered.  I could fish all day on a weekend back then and rarely bump into another angler.  But it wasn’t long after that rafting on the river turned into a big business, industrial-style tourism.  Then the state designated the Arkansas as Gold Medal trout water, followed soon thereafter by creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.  Both events were the equivalent of putting a big neon sign that said come on over, ye hordes from Denver and recreate.  And they did.

Today Denver has over a million more residents than back then with easier access to Salida, the result being flotillas of rafters, kayaks, SUPs, float fisherman, and other assorted riffraff to drive wade fisherman berserk.

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It’s virtually impossible to find a quiet spot on the river for piscatorial pursuits, even on weekdays.  Now if I am sounding like an old curmudgeon, I plead guilty.  Rant completed.

But suddenly to my wonder, the winds have died down, the water level on the Ark is 275 cfs, perfect for wading but too low for most rafters and kayaks, and the cold weather dipping into the 30s at night has sent fair-weather anglers scurrying to warmer climes.  Now if I can dodge the increasing legions of placer miners on the river and avoid the smoke bellowing down valley from the big Deckers fire, I may find some solitude like the old days and even some fish.

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The Big Ark: Row vs. Wade Revisited

Late September 2018

The creeks around my home base of Salida, Colorado, are barely a trickle reflecting the drought gripping Colorado.  The Big Arkansas River, my home water, is running at 200 CFS, the lowest I have ever seen it since I started fishing here in the early 1990s.  I can wade across it just about anywhere.  Normal is about 350 CFS.  But at least it has some water and is fishable.  Indeed, the fishing gurus at the Ark Anglers fly shop report that the fish are actually doing better than usual because they haven’t had to fight the usual artificially high summer flows that result when upstream reservoirs dump water to support the recreational whitewater rafting industry.  The Arkansas is the most heavily rafted river in the world bar none!  Literally thousands of rafts careen down the river each day all summer and into the fall.

Back in the 90s, the Big Ark was my favorite water.  During the week, it was mostly deserted, with only a few hearty anglers scattered over almost 50 miles of good trout water.  But even then, it was starting to be a battle with the recreational rafters.  I was writing a conservation column for American Angler back then, and penned an article titled “Row vs. Wade” that documented the growing conflicts between the rafters, float fishermen, kayakers and the lonely angler like me in chest waders.  After having boatloads of cheerful whitewater rafters plunging through honey holes I was targeting and asking me “how’s the fishing?”, flotillas of kayakers porpoising in rapids only a stone’s throw away that I knew held big rainbows, and float fishing guides letting their clients cast in pools just upstream from me on my side of the river, I suggested a river code of civility that respected the traditional wade fisherman with his limited range on the water (e.g., if you are a float fisherman and see a wade fisherman downstream, quit casting immediately and hug the bank on the other side of the stream till you are a quarter mile below him).

Unfortunately, when the Ark was declared a Gold Medal Water by the State of Colorado, which was like erecting a big neon sign for every angler in Denver and Colorado to come get it, and the creation of the Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area (AHRA), a joint federal-state effort ostensibly to better manage the 148 miles of river between Leadville and Pueblo, that actually resulted in attracting more hordes of campers in RVs and every other imaginable form of shelter to primitive campgrounds along the water, things just deteriorated.  The weekends are a total write-off for any sane fly angler, and even during the week it isn’t unusual now to see dozens of anglers along the river in addition to all the hoi polloi on it in watercraft (oh, did I mention the addition of SUPs stand-up paddle boarders to the mélange??).

Now I know I am sounding like a curmudgeonly, grumpy old F**T, but as a result I just gave up fishing the Ark altogether during the summer and, like this year, just waited to early fall for my first outing on my beloved home water.  This September I chose a stretch far enough above the AHRA campground at Rincon where float fisherman, rafters, and kayakers often use the boat ramp to launch and far enough below access points upstream that I might get lucky and not have to curse and wail when I got run over by knucklehead watercrafters—at least until later in the day.  On a beautiful sunny fall day, I set out with high hopes….

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