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.
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.
The North Fork of the South Arkansas River springs from three high-mountain lakes–Arthur,Island,and Billings– about 20 miles west of Salida,Colorado. Arthur Lake is one of my favorite early summer destinations, ensconced in a gorgeous setting just below the Continental Divide, loaded with hefty cutthroat trout, and requiring some substantial effort to reach its shores. Which means I usually have the place to myself, particularly during the week. It’s late June, and the report from ArkAnglers fly shop is that Arthur is ice-free, so I’m on the road early for the hour-long drive west from Salida to the trailhead at North Fork Reservoir. The turn off of US 50 is at Maysville, then about a ten-mile trek up County Road 240 that starts out as a smooth, scenic paved road but which turns gnarly about four miles up just past the public Shavano Campground. From there it is a very rough road suitable only for high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. You’ll be lucky to average 10 mph. Buckle up! Some big cutthroat are just up the road!