The Arkansas River on Colorado’s Front Range is unlike many Western rivers because it flows freely for more than 150 miles from its headwaters before it meets its first dam, in Pueblo on Colorado’s eastern plain. But this does not mean the river is pristine. Over the years it has suffered from abuse and pollution. Since 1993, however, when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup project began at California Gulch, the river has rebounded and become a popular fly-fishing destination. It’s a resilient freestone stream that is now more ecologically balanced than many people ever thought possible.
In addition to the cleanup, good communication among whitewater rafters, kayakers, fly fishers, and Water Board directors have made possible better spring fishing while preserving water for boaters. Also, the Arkansas Headwaters Association, a coalition of local, state, and federal agencies, deserves a great deal of the credit for improving river access and regulating river use.
In the past, annual releases from reservoirs on the Arkansas’s tributaries blew away spring caddis hatches. Now those releases coincide with natural runoff or occur during winter, making conditions good for spring hatch matching. Simply put, the Arkansas has been transformed from a drainage that suffered from heavy metal pollution and neglect to one with good water quality and lots of attention. Along with insightful flow management, improved water quality has led to an improved trout fishery.
The Arkansas is primarily a brown-trout stream with a few healthy rainbows and Snake River cutthroats. In the headwaters, adventuresome anglers can find greenback cutthroat trout, which were recently restored in the streams and a few high-mountain lakes. Most of the browns range from 12 inches to 16 inches long, but some larger ones lurk in deeper runs and remote canyon stretches. The great news is that they are plentiful and growing older—and larger. The lack of a strong forage base is the only thing that keeps them from achieving trophy class. This river may not be the place for anglers who want to catch large fish, but it’s definitely the place for those who want lots of fish and loads of fun with dry flies.
Twenty years ago, the river’s trout fed on an aquatic base of stoneflies and caddis, along with a wonderful terrestrial buffet typical of a semi-arid environment. Today, this includes mayflies such as Baetis, Pale Morning Duns, Red Quills, and Green Drakes. Cleaner water has certainly helped mayfly populations to soar, but big bugs and caddis are still the trout’s favorite fare.
Access and Special-reg Water
One of the Arkansas’s finest attributes is its accessibility. More than 50 percent of it is public, and most of it is well marked along major highways, with parking available at state park day-use areas. You don’t need a guide to find good fishing, but a good guide can put you onto larger fish.
If you travel south from Leadville, you can meet the river at the Highway 24 bridge, which marks the beginning of over five miles of the newest public-access lease, Hayden Ranch. The river there is a small, winding stream with willow-lined banks, but below the bridge it picks up speed and water as it cuts through Brown’sCanyon between Buena Vista and Salida. This area is perhaps the most scenic and productive water on the river. The best access is by boat. You can walk upstream from the lower end of the canyon at Hecla Junction, but you must cross to the river’s east side to enter public land. The crossing is difficult except during low water.
By the time the river reaches Salida, it levels out and becomes a meandering, classic Rocky Mountain river with wide gravel bars, boulder fields, and deep runs accented with shallow pools and backwater eddies. For the next 50 miles, U.S. Highway 50 shadows the river and provides the most popular recreational access. Three fly/lure-only sections near Salida—Big Bend, Smith Lease, and an area downstream of Salida—offer about 15 miles of special-regulation water with lower kill limits.
From Salida to Texas Creek, you can find easy access, wonderful habitat, and great fish populations. From Texas Creek to Cañon City, the river drops gradually to the foothills. This stretch includes the Royal Gorge, which holds some nice fish, but is extremely difficult to navigate because of its rapids and plunge pools.
The 20 miles from Texas Creek to Royal Gorge takes you through a beautiful granite canyon, complete with one of the best bighorn sheep herds in the Rockies. This water offers excellent fly fishing during the spring and fall. During summer it is literally a water park because of the numerous Class V rapids, with names like Sunshine Falls and Widow Maker. I like this stretch because it looks difficult to fish and many newcomers from Denver and other Front Range cities pass it by. Actually, the fish there tend to congregate along the edges and outside seams, making shoreline hikes a nice way to spend an afternoon of fishing. The Arkansas in Cañon City offers excellent fishing along 3.5 miles of a public river trail system called the River Walk, which is used for walking, biking, and bird watching.
The next fly-fishing opportunity comes at Pueblo Reservoir and the tailwater below the dam. The reservoir itself is becoming a mecca for fly anglers who want to catch wipers, white bass/striped bass hybrids that grow to between 8 and 15 pounds. Smallmouth and largemouth bass regularly fall to float tubers, but you need a powerboat to chase wipers effectively. The tailwater is open to all types of fishing, which makes it less attractive to most fly fishers. The fishing there is not as good as above the reservoir, but it can be worthwhile. On nice days in January, for example, it can provide fast action on Baetis and midge adults—not a bad way to spend a day.
How to Fish It
The Arkansas is a popular whitewater rafting river—not a good place for a Mckenzie-style drift boat, unless you want to take your boat out in pieces. Inflatable boats or pontoon boats with fly-fishing frames are the best craft to use. Personal pontoon crafts are excellent on this river most of the year (excluding mid-May to mid-July) when the water flows at less than 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). If you get a good map and plan your drift, you can have good fishing on your own. The launch areas are well placed from Salida to Cañon City, giving you the option of short or long floats. Good maps are available from the two fly shops on the river or the Arkansas River Headwaters Association, (719) 539-7289.
Even if you use a boat, the best way to fish this river is to wade it. A competent fly fisher can break the river down into smaller units and work on fish up-close and personal. Wading is dangerous in flows over 1,000 cfs. Flow reports are available from www.royalgorgeanglers.com.
Although most people don’t use spikes on their boots, I recommend using them as well as a wading staff.
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