The Arkansas River is one of the most popular destination waters to fly fish in Colorado. With a Gold Medal designation there are a lot of reasons why this river receives the attention it does. The Arkansas is great for float fishing and wade fishing, so anglers can explore some section of the “Ark”. Predominately a wild brown trout fishery healthy Hofer strain rainbows are encountered too in this river only with less frequency. If there was a prime time of year for a fly angler to fish the Arkansas that time would be now through May, during the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch.
As springtime temperatures warm in Colorado an emergence of magical proportions occurs within the Arkansas River. Water temperatures gather life en masse as the river flows reach the 50s. Given the Infamous name, the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch, the emergence that occurs on the Arkansas is a well-storied Colorado hatch like the Salmonflies on the Gunnison or Green Drakes on the Roaring Fork, and with good cause.
Beginning somewhere near Canon City, as early as the middle of April some years, the caddis start to become active. Water temperatures creeping up into the 50s spur along the hatch of Brachycentrus caddis.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife lists over 80 miles of public access along the Arkansas River between Leadville and Canon City. Finding fishing access along its course is easy as following Highway 24 or 50 riverside and pulling over and parking at numerous State provided access areas, on BLM and National forest land or floating from boat ramp to boat ramp.
The hatch will progress upriver daily. Finding the heaviest activity is as easy as looking for the blizzard of moths over the water. Start your fishing above or upriver of the hatch for the best activity. Often in the midst of the hatch it is difficult to raise a fish to your dry fly with so many naturals on the water. A dry dropper approach is one of the favorites techniques for fly fishing the Arkansas River. Fishing above the hatch, anticipating the upcoming activity takes advantage of heavy numbers of insects in nymph stage already in the river.
Trout in this River:
The Brown Trout rules the Arkansas River. A high population of Browns can be encountered anywhere along the entire river. These are wild fish, treat them as such as they spook easily. Keep low when casting and watch your shadow. Shadows give anglers away more than most fly fishers realize. Even in heavy, broken current a shadow cast into the riffle will cut through the surface all the way to the bottom of the run spooking fish.
The State of Colorado has stocked a whirling disease resistant Hofer strain rainbow. The rainbows gain size easily in the Arkansas River. However the Arkansas is not a trophy trout fishery but rather a trophy experience fishery. The strength in this watershed is the dry fly fishing for a high population of 12”-16” Brown Trout.
Beginning outside of Leadville the Arkansas River offers high altitude access to some beautiful stretches of water. Brown’s Canyon is a boat only section of the river between the towns of Buena Vista and Salida. From Salida downstream for the next 50 miles the river holds all types of pleasant angling water with boulder pockets, gravel bars, back eddies and pools where a dry fly beckons to be cast.
When the caddis hatch is on this is some of the most enjoyable water to fish as you try to stay ahead of the hatch that creeps up the river daily. 15 miles of Special Regulation water near Salida reduces the amount of harvested fish in this area giving the feeling of higher fish numbers. The Salida area has some of the easiest access to the river along with healthy trout populations. Near Canon City anglers encounter the Royal Gorge an area that is difficult to fish but could hold the largest fish in the entire river.
Gear for the “Ark”:
Most anglers are comfortable using Floating Weight Forward fly lines like Airflo’s Super-Dri Cast Fly line. 5weight rods in 9 foot lengths are the norm. However some of the longer 10’ and 11’ rods or switch rods can help in reach, casting and critical line mending. The Winston Boron III X Super 10 is a fine example of the type of rod I am describing. Longer rods have forgiving tips, strong back bones and great presentation qualities.
Flies for the Hatch:
If you tie your own flies, the Arkansas Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch is the arena to tie your own bugs. The reward is two-fold when you connect with a wild brown trout on a bug you tied yourself. The Arkansas is also a river where anglers can exercise the dry fly demons winter weather keeps in check. High riding Elk Hair Caddis patterns will catch fish all over the Arkansas River. When times get tough or the hatch seems to puzzle you another offering to carry would be some type of Egg Laying Caddis pattern. A crippled caddis will also often take finicky fish.
The Blue Wing Olive is prevalent this time of year; so a Parachute Adams in your box would be advantageous. Streamers account for fish on the Arkansas as the high number of Brown Trout are predatory and actively seek out larger food sources.
The Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Arkansas River could be the most spectacular emergence of caddis throughout Colorado. The dry fly fishing opportunities abound from Leadville to Canon City and everywhere in between.
The opportunity to fish a legendary hatch on renowned water is a experience we can easily achieve here in Colorado. Give Vail Valley Anglers a call to sort out all of your May Caddis Hatch necessities.
Mike “Sal” Salomone
Vail Valley Anglers Guide and Content Writer