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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I usually fish the river with a 9-foot, 5-weight rod, a weight-forward, floating 5-weight line (the Scientific Anglers Windmaster is my favorite), and 71/2- to 9-foot leaders with 4X-5X tippets. Afternoons can be breezy, so you must be able to penetrate the wind. An 8-foot, 4-weight is perfect for fishing drys in calm conditions.
The Arkansas is not an early-morning river. I find it fishes better from 10 A.M. until 2 P.M. and from 5 P.M. until dark. Your best bet for big browns is in the evening and later, when they come out to feed.
The Great Hatch
The mother of all Mother’s Day Caddis hatches occurs on the Arkansas. The caddis (Brachycentrus) hatch when the water temperature reaches about 50 degrees F. The hatch begins in the Cañon City area around April 15 and gradually moves upstream past Salida until runoff blows it away, usually around May 15. The irony is that by Mother’s Day the fish have seen so many bugs that fooling them with an Elk-hair Caddis is impossible.
When people call me and want to know where the hatch is, I simply tell them to drive until they can’t see out the windshield. Then stop, clean the glass, and drive three or four more miles upstream. The goal is to get above the blanket hatch so that fishing a dry fly can be more productive. Having bugs on the water is good, but during this hatch there can be too many. Picking out your fly on the water can be impossible, let alone picking the naturals out of your ears and nose. My friend Rod Patch in Salida calls this a “breathe-through-your-teeth kind of hatch.”
You need to think your way through this hatch. As it begins, the larvae patterns are important. I usually drift them behind big stonefly nymphs, such as Larry Kingrey’s Arkansas Rubber-leg Stone. Next comes a pupa fished as an emerger by swinging it downstream. Then comes the adult, and then the spent caddis.
During the waning days of the hatch, the spent patterns always take big fish late in the day. My favorite spent pattern is Mike Lawson’s Spent Partridge Caddis in a #16. The best adult pattern is a #14 Elk-hair Caddis with a peacock body. Almost any larva works well. Kaufmann’s Bead-head Metallic is a good choice, as well as the old latex standbys.
The most important pattern is the pupa. You can’t go wrong with LaFontaine’s Sparkle Emerger or Kingrey’s Bubble Pupa. All of these flies are necessary to be successful through the entire hatch. There are days, however, when just fishing an Elk-hair Caddis can bring 75 fish to hand. These days occur around the third week of April, before the fish are “bugged” out.
If you have a new dry-fly rod to break in, take it to the Arkansas and book a room for the entire month of April. The first hatch of spring is a Blue-winged Olive (Baetis), and the hatch can be spectacular on cloudy days in late March and early April. Light snowfall can generate hordes of the bugs and start a daily feeding frenzy.
The best time to fish the Arkansas is mid-April. It gives you intense Olive hatches, great caddis larva and stonefly nymphing, and the beginning of various caddis hatches along the lower corridor.
While April is the best dry-fly month, the time not to fish the Arkansas is from mid-May to mid-July. High water from runoff makes fishing difficult so the runoff months are better left to the whitewater enthusiasts. The only problem with this is that a heavy stonefly (Acroneuria) hatch occurs in June. If you dodge the rafts, you can use Stimulators to pick off fish along the edges.
August is hopper-and-dropper time. Small bead-heads hanging off a big parachute hopper or Stimulator can provide some of the best action of the year. This lasts well into September when fall Baetis and Red Quills take over.
From December to February, use big stonefly nymphs or CDC midges to break up winter doldrums. Try the tailwater stretch below Pueblo Reservoir.
Don’t think the best way to fish this river is to always match the hatch. Impressionistic patterns and attractors are excellent producers, and even nontraditional bead-head patterns work well. Be innovative and use materials that trap air. In addition, always carry several sizes of Royal Wulffs, yellow Humpies, H & L Variants, and Royal Stimulators.
Which two flies would I use on the Arkansas if I were limited to just two? A #10 Orange Stimulator and a #12 Bead-head Prince. These flies can catch fish 365 days a year.
The Arkansas River is about 115 miles southwest of Denver and easy to reach. From Denver take I-25 south to Colorado Springs. Take Highway 115 to Penrose. Go west on U.S. 50 to Cañon City. Past Cañon City and the Royal Gorge, the road parallels the river to Salida. North of Salida, U.S. 285 and U.S. 24 follow the river to its headwaters.
Commercial air service is available between Denver International Airport and Colorado Springs, and Cañon City has Fremont Airport.
For river reports and subscriptions to the electronic newsletter, Arkansas News, visit the author’s website through the Virtual Flyshop’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center/Flyshops Guides and Outfitters/ Colorado/Royal Gorge Anglers.
Bill Edrington owns Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City, Colorado.