About a month ago, my friend and I serendipitously found ourselves with the same 4 days off from work and with that, the age-old question arose. Where are we gonna go fish? We both had a handful of rivers which we had either never fished before or wanted to put more time into. But how to choose? After a few beers may or may not have been consumed, a rough “Wheel of Fishing Fortune” was crafted, a glorious spin was given and the Arkansas River was proclaimed our next fly fishing destination.
The Arkansas River in and around Salida, CO offers approximately 70 miles of public access. That is a LOT of water to cover. So we narrowed it down and set our sights on the 25-mile stretch from Stockyard Bridge just east of Salida to the Texas Creek confluence near the small town of Cotopaxi. This section of the Arkansas River was designated as Gold Medal Waters by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in 1982. To be awarded this classification, a fishery “must be able produce 60 pounds of standing crop per acre, at least 12, 14″+ trout per acre and be accessible to the public.” To the layman, Gold Medal Waters standout as the healthiest, trout-packed stretches of river around.
In order to maximize our time on the water, we decided to car camp near the river for a few nights. This, in my opinion, is one of the best bonus features about this section of the Arkansas River. Campsites are abundant and with any prime real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. You can pull into one of the several pay campgrounds (Rincon, Vallie Bridge, and Bighorn Park to name a few) and relish in amenities like bathrooms, potable water and RV hookups. Or you can take a more primitive approach and find an established campsite on BLM land. Either option places you within a short walking distance to optimal runs and pools.
Now, I should mention that if you’ve ever driven from Salida to Canon City on Highway 50, you probably have seen the stretch I speak of. Large rock outcroppings jutting into deep pools of emerald green water. Long riffles at just the right depths screaming “fish me!” A perfect balance of bends, soft water, lengthy runs with wide seams and fishy foam lines. It’s the kind of water that when driving next to it at 50 mph, you and your buddies almost crash the truck from ogling over it’s perfection too much and paying attention to the road too little. You know what I’m talking about.
With this section’s generous variety of waterways, the angler has the opportunity to pick and choose which fishing technique they would prefer to employ. I, for example, got into quite a few trout by nymphing faster moving riffles and creases, especially in the mornings. My typical kickoff rig consisted of either a JuJu Baetis or Barr’s Emerger (#18-#22) below an Umpqua Flashtail Mini Egg (#14-#16) or a pink Squirmy Wormy.
Although the browns and rainbows I landed usually ate my smaller dropper, it was arguably the top, brightly colored attractor fly that got their attention in the first place.
Learning As you Go
After fishing this stretch for a few days, one major element I noticed was that the trout were more spread out in the river rather than stacked or podded up. I would get strikes in one particular run but would then have to cast to a different area or walk to another spot before hooking up again. There is a lot of river for the trout to move around in. So I suggest the angler do the same. I did, however, stumble upon one scenario as an exception to this fish dispersion. When a highly oxygenated run flowed into a deep pool, I found that the trout stacked up right at the drop-off point.
If you encounter one of these areas (there are many). Post up slightly down river from the run but cast far up into it, maybe 15-20 feet before the drop. This will give your flies enough time to sink to the river floor before descending off the lip of the pool and right into the trout’s mouth.
In the afternoons, keep your eyes peeled for the blue winged olives and caddis hatches, which are currently ramping up. On cloudier days, you’ll find trout feeding off the surface on small BWO, primarily in soft, slower moving water. If you left your small aquarium net at home, try catching one of the bugs flying around or scoop one off the water surface. Note the wing & body color, the relative size and match appropriately from your fly box. I had great success tying on a #20 Parachute Adams and working the flat, pocket water.
While driving back to Edwards, I had time to reflect on the three days we just experienced on the Ark . Here is what I gleaned from my retrospect:
- We barely scratched the surface. Even by reducing our beat to around 10 miles of river and refraining from fishing any spot more than once. Don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of publicly accessible water. Pick a few solid looking stretches and work them hard. But be open to moving around a lot too.
- The Arkansas is an amazing river, holding thousands of trout per mile. Even with those numbers, the fish aren’t handing themselves over and jumping in your net with reckless abandon. Be ready to apply as much of your fly fishing savvy as needed to get the job done.
- With spring flows increasing each week, be extremely careful while wading in the river or attempting to cross it. I wish I had purchased one of the wading staff options available at Vail Valley Anglers before heading out. It would have come in handy many times over.
Keep em wet, handle them sparingly, and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers Content Writer, @sticks2snow