September 30, 2021
This article was originally titled "Arkansas River Gold" in the Aug-Sept 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Spending the majority of my life chasing fish in a river or in the salt has taught me three important lessons. First and foremost, you’ll always want to make one more cast, one more swing, one more strip. You’ll always be obsessed with the next connection to whatever fish you may find yourself pursuing. Second, there will almost certainly never be enough protection for the wild places we love to fish. With continual population growth and development, preserving the environment will always be an uphill battle. And finally, although I’ve pursued hundreds of species on the fly on four continents, I always find myself amazed with my home water. Colorado’s Arkansas River (“the Mighty Ark”) is truly a wonder to behold, from start to finish.
The Arkansas River is unlike many others in Colorado because it flows freely for more than 150 miles, from its headwaters to where it meets its first dam in Pueblo on Colorado’s eastern plains. The Arkansas provides more public access than any other river in the state. And based on the number of anglers who visit it, the Arkansas is Colorado’s most popular river.
The freestone section of the Ark has 102 contiguous miles designated by Colorado Parks & Wildlife as Gold Medal water—from near the headwaters almost all the way downstream to Cañon City. This stretch equates to nearly a third of Colorado’s total Gold Medal river mileage. Add in the Arkansas tailwater below Pueblo Reservoir—which may be the most consistent year-round fishery in the state—and it’s easy to argue that the Arkansas offers as much variety and diversity as any river in North America.
The earliest record of the Arkansas River dates to the Coronado Expedition in 1540, in which the river was given the name “St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s River.” However, its early name, “Arkansa,” came from later French voyageurs, who wrote about the specific “Arkansa” tribe of Dakota Native Americans who lived at the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in what is today the state of Arkansas.
From 1819 to 1846, the Arkansas River was the official border between Spanish-governed Mexico and the United States. Only after the Mexican-American War did the entire Arkansas River fall within the boundaries of the United States.
There was a short gold rush along the Arkansas River in 1859, but soon the gold was exhausted, and the rush moved elsewhere. Other minerals, such as silver and molybdenum, were also mined in the area.
Like many other Rocky Mountain rivers, the Arkansas suffered the aftereffects of mining operations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, due to mine tailing spills and heavy metal pollution.
Since 1993, however—when a massive U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup project began on more than 50 mining sites near the headwaters—the river has rebounded to become one of the more prolific trout fisheries in North America.
The first dam on the river was completed in 1975 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project at Pueblo Reservoir. The project was authorized in 1962 for the purposes of supplying water for irrigation, municipal, domestic, and industrial uses, and for generating and transmitting hydroelectric power.
What evolved below the dam in subsequent decades was the formation of one of the most consistent year-round tailwater fisheries in Colorado. The 9-mile stretch below Pueblo Dam is widely known as a tremendous wading section in the winter, spring, and fall. Some incredible browns, rainbows, and cuttbows (some in the 24- to 30-inch range) are there throughout the year—but our guide service most often finds these fish in the higher flows of May through August, when we can float the river.
While it’s a very technical watershed during low flows—due to angling pressure and gin-clear water—the bugs are pretty simple, and the hatches are consistent on the Arkansas tailwater. A truly remarkable aspect of this fishery is that you can throw a dry fly productively 365 days a year. The fall, winter, and early spring seasons present heavy hatches of midges, Tricos, Pseudocloeons (Tiny Blue-winged Olives), and Baetis (Dark Blue-winged Olives).
April and May are magical on the Arkansas tailwater, when water temperatures hit that sweet spot of 40 to 45 degrees, and the river erupts with corresponding heavy bug activity.
Summer on the tailwater means higher releases due to downstream irrigation demand, and typically minimal angling pressure. Wading the tailwater when the flows are more than 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) isn’t advisable.
But for those who understand the intricacies of floating this section, the summer season is special. You can take advantage of typically tinted summertime green water, with a variety of larger attractor drys, oversized nymphs, and big streamers. Annelids (worms), leeches, stoneflies, and scuds are all foundation patterns, along with whatever hatch activity is present.
Hatches are certainly of great variety, with healthy populations of Pale Morning Duns, Red Quills, Yellow Sallies, craneflies, and of course caddis. If you’ve not spent a day on the Arkansas tailwater, it’s truly evolving into one of the most consistent tailwaters in the Rockies, and should make your short list.
The freestone section of the mighty Ark runs in a steep torrent through the Collegiate Range of the Rockies. Beginning at its headwaters above Leadville, the river runs as a Class IV whitewater section known as The Numbers and then through Browns Canyon National Monument on its way through the town of Salida, Bighorn Canyon, the Royal Gorge, and finally Cañon City.
With more than 4,000 feet of elevation drop from the headwaters to Cañon City, this is a wild section of water not just for fly fishers, but for outdoor recreationists of all kinds. The whitewater sections of The Numbers, Browns Canyon National Monument, and Royal Gorge see more thrill-seeking boaters than any other river in the world. Over the course of the last several decades, multi-use recreation has driven stakeholders to develop a truly groundbreaking water-management program on the freestone section.
Through the Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flow Management Program (VFMP), upstream water releases are coordinated with the optimal health of the trout fishery and with other recreational stakeholders in mind—while still satisfying downstream agricultural water demands. In essence, water is moved downstream in the winter to make room for incoming spring snowmelt, and to keep flows low and optimal in the spring and fall for rainbow and brown trout spawning and fry emergence. In addition, the VFMP strives to keep at least 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water in the river through mid-August, which keeps the river cool during the summer.
Often referred to as the 100-mile-long riffle, the Arkansas River is much more than just that. It’s a pocketwater paradise that offers incredible variety. The steep gradient means greater oxygen content and a clean substrate. The Arkansas River is a perfect mechanism for booming bug populations and trout spawning success. Freestone rivers are healthy ecosystems, with greater biodiversity compared to tailwaters, due to the annual scrubbing that freestone rivers get during runoff. With less sedimentation and plenty of oxygen, the bug life is prolific.
The Arkansas has been known for decades for its incredible mid-April Brachycentrus caddis hatch, but since the Superfund cleanup in the early 1990s, many other “sleeper hatches” have become major players, creating more year-round consistency for fly fishers.
As with any river, aquatic invertebrate activity is dictated by time, water temperatures, and light conditions. Most hatch activity begins first in the Cañon City section and makes its way upstream from there, as water temperature and bug maturation progress. While we do see some downtime from mid-December through early February—and the upper basin can jam with ice quite frequently—fly fishers can still catch fish in the winter, especially in the Bighorn Canyon and Cañon City reaches. This lower basin sits in the Banana Belt of Colorado, and we enjoy many 50-degree days in the winter. On warmer days, the fish feed opportunistically on crane fly larvae, caddis larvae, and midges.
When late February rolls around, our large populations of Golden Stoneflies enter a heavy period of molting, in which they shed their exoskeletons and become extremely active crawlers. This event takes trout feeding behavior up a notch. Although there are dozens of different stoneflies in the Arkansas, the Goldens are the most prolific.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, the first major hatch activity of the year begins. The massive Blue-winged Olive hatch has become a favorite of anglers in both the spring and fall—and more and more so over the last decade, with the phenomenal growth in numbers of this fun little bug. Flows are typically at their lowest of the year, and the water is generally gin-clear. Though the trout are willing participants in the spring, don’t leave your “A” game at home. Long leaders, light tippets, and small flies will catch you a lot more fish.
Around April 15, we begin to see blizzard hatches of Brachycentrus caddis in Cañon City, and the hatch progresses upstream from there. This is the same hatch that’s often called the “Mother’s Day hatch” in other parts of the country, but due to the timing on our river, I call it the “Tax Day Hatch.”
Don’t get hung up on fishing dry flies exclusively. Caddis emergers should be key focuses for fly fishers. The Arkansas is a river where I’m confident you can catch larger numbers of fish by imitating the emergent stages of any insect life cycles, simply due to the fact that the river is dominated by brown trout, and because of their aggressive nature, they seem to key in on those emergent movements. Browns also love the midwater column—another reason why streamers are great producers throughout the season.
Summer on the Arkansas begins with torrents of water coming down the hill, a crucial cleansing cycle for the river. Snowmelt begins around the middle of May, and we typically begin to see clearing edges around the last week of June. Clearing edges or “fishing in a barrel” season is among the favorites for guides. Prime holding water post-runoff is easy to understand—it’s tight to the banks in pockets of less turbulent water. It just so happens that Golden Stoneflies hatch at the same time, and where do they crawl to hatch? The edges!
From early July through mid-September, we get to throw big bugs at the shorelines for opportunistic feeders. Flow rates can range anywhere from 600 to 1,400 cubic feet per second (cfs) at this time, which certainly affects the prime feeding lies and how spread out the fish are. Rigging for success is fairly basic. Carry a dry/dropper rod as well as a streamer rod, and work the zone close to shore. Plan to fish early and late in the day. Low light is key to finding feeding trout and hatches of Pale Morning Duns, Yellow Sallies, caddis, craneflies, Red Quills, and Golden Stoneflies.
As the air gets cold and crisp, the Arkansas makes a transition. Fall is typically characterized by low, gin-clear water and a return to more technical fishing. The changing foliage is accompanied by changing colors in the brown trout as they enter pre-spawn—always a visual treat. The browns move into an aggressive and territorial mindset as they enter the spawn. Keep those streamer rods handy, and don’t be afraid to throw tandem rigs and patterns in the 5- to 6-inch size range—this is a golden window of opportunity for trophy browns on the Arkansas. A continuation of heavy Red Quill activity is on the menu, along with Pseudocloeons, Gray Drakes, Green Drakes, and October Caddis. With lower water, every pocket seems to hold a few fish in this magical time period.
Freestone rivers like the Arkansas offer tremendous variety throughout the seasons, and that variety will test your entire skill set. In contrast to tailwaters, conditions on the Arkansas change constantly, and the wide range of aquatic invertebrate activity can throw the book at you. Understanding flow rates, water temperatures, insect life cycles, and how those variables control prime lies will open the gates to success. If you can roll with the punches, you’ll do well.
Protecting Grape Creek
Trout in freestone streams are tough, battle-tested, and resilient creatures. The Arkansas River has been presented with many natural and man-made hurdles over the past 100 years, and always seems to come back stronger time after time. Adding protections for wild places should still be our number-one concern, and luckily over the last three decades, things seem to be moving in the right direction. The designation of Browns Canyon—north of Salida—as a national monument in 2015 was a key win for the Arkansas River. The 21,000-plus acres of federal- and state-managed lands are nothing short of magical, and the river here has some of the highest trout densities per mile in the entire Arkansas drainage.
According to the local nonprofit organization Friends of Browns Canyon: “Hunting, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, hiking, and camping traditions play important roles in Browns Canyon, and President Obama’s national monument proclamation protects all these traditions, ensuring their preservation, along with the natural character of this national treasure.”
While some key protections have been added with the designation of Browns Canyon National Monument, the Arkansas still faces many threats. Hard rock mining has a long and often ugly history in Rocky Mountain watersheds, and currently, we’re faced with another potential hurdle on one of the Arkansas River’s major tributaries.
Grape Creek flows from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the DeWeese Reservoir, just north of Westcliffe, Colorado. Leaving the reservoir, the creek flows generally north through a remote, rugged, semiarid canyon landscape, eventually emptying into the Arkansas River just west of Cañon City. This is a paradise for small-water fly fishers.
Along Grape Creek’s path are an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, as well as two Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). WSAs are federal lands without permanent improvements or human habitations, managed to preserve their natural conditions. They are eligible to one day become designated wilderness areas.
However, a foreign mining exploration company, Zephyr Minerals, Ltd., has already drilled unsuccessfully for gold inside one of Grape Creek’s Wilderness Study Areas. Zephyr Minerals built drilling platforms on the steep slopes above the creek, hauling materials with low-flying helicopters, and pumped water uphill out of Grape Creek for use with the drilling equipment. All this was done with strong opposition from local residents and conservation groups. Zephyr Minerals, Ltd. now plans to apply for future mining operations, either in the Grape Creek drainage or on adjacent public lands.
Current national legislative efforts are underway to upgrade these WSAs and designate them as federally protected wilderness areas. But wilderness designation would become improbable if a commercial gold (hard rock) mine, complete with processing plant, waste rock storage areas, and a tailings storage area were to be established within or adjacent to the WSA.
As the largest tributary to the Arkansas River between Salida and Pueblo Reservoir, the Grape Creek drainage is valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The upper and lower Grape Creek WSAs and adjacent public lands comprise nearly 30,000 acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat. As the only water source for many miles in any direction, the creek itself is a precious magnet for a wide variety of plants and animals. Brown and rainbow trout thrive in Grape Creek. In the creek’s thin riparian zone, mule deer, black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and elk can be found. A large herd of bighorn sheep lives in the crags and cliffs above the creek, and the sheep descend to the water daily.
Along the creek are abundant plants and trees unique to southern Colorado, including several varieties of cactus, narrowleaf cottonwoods, as well as the piñon/juniper woodlands on the slopes above the creek. This rugged tributary oasis is threatened. Longtime Royal Gorge Anglers guide and backcountry specialist Paul Vertrees says: “This lower-elevation wilderness holds significant value for outdoor recreation, including fishing, hunting, hiking, and many other quiet use activities. Mining leaves permanent scars that never heal in this mountainous, semiarid landscape and on the creek itself . . . not to mention the eventual potential impact on the Arkansas River from its tributary confluence downstream.”
Gold mining is one of the most destructive industries in the world—it can contaminate water, hurt workers, destroy pristine environments, and produce chemical contamination. Producing gold for one 18-karat, 0.333-ounce wedding ring alone generates 20 tons of waste (USGS, 2020). Many concerned parties have dedicated countless hours and resources to bring awareness to Zephyr Minerals operations in this area, but none have done more to champion this cause than the local nonprofit Royal Gorge Preservation Project (RGPP). RGPP’s mission is to “protect and to educate the public regarding the value of tourism in the Royal Gorge area as a viable public goal and to preserve the natural beauty of the Royal Gorge region from environmentally destructive human activity.”
The team at RGPP has done a phenomenal job of educating the public about the Zephyr Minerals exploration activities and the consequential threats to wild fish and clean water in the Grape Creek drainage. Thankfully, with great work comes strong support from great companies in the fly-fishing industry. This year, in collaboration with Royal Gorge Anglers and as a part of their Wholesale Environmental Grants Program, Patagonia contributed $20,000 to the fight against Zephyr Minerals by funding grassroots awareness efforts via the Royal Gorge Preservation Project.
“Patagonia is in business to save our home planet, and our Wholesale Environmental Grants Program is one of the ways we support our mission,” said Patagonia Fly Fish Regional Steward David Allen. Over the past 10 years, Patagonia has granted $4.5 million to environmental nonprofits via the company’s Wholesale Environmental Grants Program. Just over $1 million of that total has funded wild fish projects.
Allen went on to describe Patagonia’s mission within this program. “The intent of the program is to actively enlist the help of our specialty fly shop partners to protect the wild places they call home water. We stand for the waters we stand in.”
Taylor Edrington is the owner of Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City, Colorado.