Fly Fishing Colorado’s Arkansas River

The Mighty Ark is a marvel from begin to end.

This text was initially titled “Arkansas River Gold” within the Aug-Sept 2021 challenge of Fly Fisherman journal.

Spending nearly all of my life chasing fish in a river or within the salt has taught me three essential classes. Firstly, you’ll all the time need to make yet another solid, yet another swing, yet another strip. You’ll all the time be obsessive about the following connection to no matter fish chances are you’ll end up pursuing. Second, there’ll virtually actually by no means be sufficient safety for the wild locations we like to fish. With continuous inhabitants development and growth, preserving the surroundings will all the time be an uphill battle. And at last, though I’ve pursued a whole bunch of species on the fly on 4 continents, I all the time discover myself amazed with my dwelling water. Colorado’s Arkansas River (“the Mighty Ark”) is actually a marvel to behold, from begin to end.

The Arkansas River is not like many others in Colorado as a result of it flows freely for greater than 150 miles, from its headwaters to the place it meets its first dam in Pueblo on Colorado’s japanese plains. The Arkansas gives extra public entry than another river within the state. And based mostly on the variety of anglers who go to it, the Arkansas is Colorado’s hottest river.

The freestone part of the Ark has 102 contiguous miles designated by Colorado Parks & Wildlife as Gold Medal water—from close to the headwaters virtually all the best way downstream to Cañon Metropolis. This stretch equates to almost a 3rd of Colorado’s whole Gold Medal river mileage. Add within the Arkansas tailwater beneath Pueblo Reservoir—which would be the most constant year-round fishery within the state—and it’s straightforward to argue that the Arkansas presents as a lot selection and variety as any river in North America.

The earliest report of the Arkansas River dates to the Coronado Expedition in 1540, through which the river was given the title “St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s River.” Nevertheless, its early title, “Arkansa,” got here from later French voyageurs, who wrote in regards to the particular “Arkansa” tribe of Dakota Native People who lived on the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in what’s at the moment the state of Arkansas.

From 1819 to 1846, the Arkansas River was the official border between Spanish-governed Mexico and the USA. Solely after the Mexican-American Conflict did the whole Arkansas River fall throughout the boundaries of the USA.

There was a brief gold rush alongside the Arkansas River in 1859, however quickly the gold was exhausted, and the push moved elsewhere. Different minerals, akin to silver and molybdenum, have been additionally mined within the space.

Like many different Rocky Mountain rivers, the Arkansas suffered the aftereffects of mining operations within the late 1800s and early 1900s, attributable to mine tailing spills and heavy metallic air pollution.

Since 1993, nevertheless—when a large U.S. Environmental Safety Company Superfund cleanup undertaking started on greater than 50 mining websites close to the headwaters—the river has rebounded to grow to be one of many extra prolific trout fisheries in North America.

Tailwater Trout

The primary dam on the river was accomplished in 1975 as a part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Undertaking at Pueblo Reservoir. The undertaking was approved in 1962 for the needs of supplying water for irrigation, municipal, home, and industrial makes use of, and for producing and transmitting hydroelectric energy.

Fly Fishing Colorado's Arkansas River
Sometimes called the 100-mile-long riffle, the 102-mile part of Gold Medal water on the Arkansas River is a picture-perfect ecosystem for booming bug populations, and trout spawning success. (Nic Christiansen picture)

What advanced beneath the dam in subsequent many years was the formation of one of the constant year-round tailwater fisheries in Colorado. The 9-mile stretch beneath Pueblo Dam is extensively often called an amazing wading part within the winter, spring, and fall. Some unimaginable browns, rainbows, and cuttbows (some within the 24- to 30-inch vary) are there all year long—however our information service most frequently finds these fish within the larger flows of Might by way of August, once we can float the river.

Whereas it’s a really technical watershed throughout low flows—attributable to angling strain and gin-clear water—the bugs are fairly easy, and the hatches are constant on the Arkansas tailwater. A really exceptional side of this fishery is that you may throw a dry fly productively 12 months a 12 months. The autumn, winter, and early spring seasons current heavy hatches of midges, Tricos, Pseudocloeons (Tiny Blue-winged Olives), and Baetis (Darkish Blue-winged Olives).

April and Might are magical on the Arkansas tailwater, when water temperatures hit that candy spot of 40 to 45 levels, and the river erupts with corresponding heavy bug exercise.

Summer season on the tailwater means larger releases attributable to downstream irrigation demand, and usually minimal angling strain. Wading the tailwater when the flows are greater than 800 cubic toes per second (cfs) isn’t advisable.

However for individuals who perceive the intricacies of floating this part, the summer season season is particular. You may reap the benefits of usually tinted summertime inexperienced water, with quite a lot of bigger attractor drys, outsized nymphs, and large streamers. Annelids (worms), leeches, stoneflies, and scuds are all basis patterns, together with no matter hatch exercise is current.

Hatches are actually of nice selection, with wholesome populations of Pale Morning Duns, Pink Quills, Yellow Sallies, craneflies, and naturally caddis. For those who’ve not spent a day on the Arkansas tailwater, it’s really evolving into one of the constant tailwaters within the Rockies, and may make your brief listing.

Higher River

The freestone part of the mighty Ark runs in a steep torrent by way of the Collegiate Vary of the Rockies. Starting at its headwaters above Leadville, the river runs as a Class IV whitewater part often called The Numbers after which by way of Browns Canyon Nationwide Monument on its manner by way of the city of Salida, Bighorn Canyon, the Royal Gorge, and eventually Cañon Metropolis.

With greater than 4,000 toes of elevation drop from the headwaters to Cañon Metropolis, it is a wild part of water not only for fly fishers, however for outside recreationists of all types. The whitewater sections of The Numbers, Browns Canyon Nationwide Monument, and Royal Gorge see extra thrill-seeking boaters than another river on the planet. Over the course of the final a number of many years, multi-use recreation has pushed stakeholders to develop a really groundbreaking water-management program on the freestone part.

By the Higher Arkansas Voluntary Stream Administration Program (VFMP), upstream water releases are coordinated with the optimum well being of the trout fishery and with different leisure stakeholders in thoughts—whereas nonetheless satisfying downstream agricultural water calls for. In essence, water is moved downstream within the winter to make room for incoming spring snowmelt, and to maintain flows low and optimum within the spring and fall for rainbow and brown trout spawning and fry emergence. As well as, the VFMP strives to maintain a minimum of 700 cubic toes per second (cfs) of water within the river by way of mid-August, which retains the river cool through the summer season.

Sometimes called the 100-mile-long riffle, the Arkansas River is far more than simply that. It’s a pocketwater paradise that gives unimaginable selection. The steep gradient means higher oxygen content material and a clear substrate. The Arkansas River is an ideal mechanism for booming bug populations and trout spawning success. Freestone rivers are wholesome ecosystems, with higher biodiversity in comparison with tailwaters, because of the annual scrubbing that freestone rivers get throughout runoff. With much less sedimentation and loads of oxygen, the bug life is prolific.

The Arkansas has been recognized for many years for its unimaginable mid-April Brachycentrus caddis hatch, however because the Superfund cleanup within the early Nineteen Nineties, many different “sleeper hatches” have grow to be main gamers, creating extra year-round consistency for fly fishers.

Fly Fishing Colorado's Arkansas River
Throughout the April Brachycentrus caddis hatch, fly fishers usually get too overzealous to catch fish on drys, whereas many extra fish are centered on the center water column and the caddis emergent stage. This fly by Juan Ramirez is known as Kryptonite Caddis. (Juan Ramirez picture)

As with all river, aquatic invertebrate exercise is dictated by time, water temperatures, and lightweight situations. Most hatch exercise begins first within the Cañon Metropolis part and makes its manner upstream from there, as water temperature and bug maturation progress. Whereas we do see some downtime from mid-December by way of early February—and the higher basin can jam with ice fairly continuously—fly fishers can nonetheless catch fish within the winter, particularly within the Bighorn Canyon and Cañon Metropolis reaches. This decrease basin sits within the Banana Belt of Colorado, and we get pleasure from many 50-degree days within the winter. On hotter days, the fish feed opportunistically on crane fly larvae, caddis larvae, and midges.

When late February rolls round, our giant populations of Golden Stoneflies enter a heavy interval of molting, through which they shed their exoskeletons and grow to be extraordinarily lively crawlers. This occasion takes trout feeding habits up a notch. Though there are dozens of various stoneflies within the Arkansas, the Goldens are essentially the most prolific.

Round St. Patrick’s Day, the primary main hatch exercise of the 12 months begins. The huge Blue-winged Olive hatch has grow to be a favourite of anglers in each the spring and fall—and increasingly more so over the past decade, with the outstanding development in numbers of this enjoyable little bug. Flows are usually at their lowest of the 12 months, and the water is usually gin-clear. Although the trout are prepared members within the spring, don’t depart your “A” recreation at dwelling. Lengthy leaders, mild tippets, and small flies will catch you much more fish.

Round April 15, we start to see blizzard hatches of Brachycentrus caddis in Cañon Metropolis, and the hatch progresses upstream from there. This is identical hatch that’s usually referred to as the “Mom’s Day hatch” in different components of the nation, however because of the timing on our river, I name it the “Tax Day Hatch.”

Don’t get hung up on fishing dry flies completely. Caddis emergers ought to be key focuses for fly fishers. The Arkansas is a river the place I’m assured you possibly can catch bigger numbers of fish by imitating the emergent levels of any insect life cycles, merely attributable to the truth that the river is dominated by brown trout, and due to their aggressive nature, they appear to key in on these emergent actions. Browns additionally love the midwater column—another excuse why streamers are nice producers all through the season.

Fly Fishing Colorado's Arkansas River
The freestone part of the Arkansas runs by way of Browns Canyon Nationwide Monument, which has been preserved as a nationwide treasure. It’s Colorado’s hottest trout river, and a busy vacation spot for boaters. (Pat Dorsey picture)

Summer season on the Arkansas begins with torrents of water coming down the hill, a vital cleaning cycle for the river. Snowmelt begins across the center of Might, and we usually start to see clearing edges across the final week of June. Clearing edges or “fishing in a barrel” season is among the many favorites for guides. Prime holding water post-runoff is straightforward to know—it’s tight to the banks in pockets of much less turbulent water. It simply so occurs that Golden Stoneflies hatch on the similar time, and the place do they crawl to hatch? The sides!

From early July by way of mid-September, we get to throw massive bugs on the shorelines for opportunistic feeders. Stream charges can vary wherever from 600 to 1,400 cubic toes per second (cfs) right now, which actually impacts the prime feeding lies and the way unfold out the fish are. Rigging for fulfillment is pretty fundamental. Carry a dry/dropper rod in addition to a streamer rod, and work the zone near shore. Plan to fish early and late within the day. Low mild is essential to discovering feeding trout and hatches of Pale Morning Duns, Yellow Sallies, caddis, craneflies, Pink Quills, and Golden Stoneflies.

Fall Fishing

Because the air will get chilly and crisp, the Arkansas makes a transition. Fall is usually characterised by low, gin-clear water and a return to extra technical fishing. The altering foliage is accompanied by altering colours within the brown trout as they enter pre-spawn—all the time a visible deal with. The browns transfer into an aggressive and territorial mindset as they enter the spawn. Hold these streamer rods helpful, and don’t be afraid to throw tandem rigs and patterns within the 5- to 6-inch measurement vary—it is a golden window of alternative for trophy browns on the Arkansas. A continuation of heavy Pink Quill exercise is on the menu, together with Pseudocloeons, Grey Drakes, Inexperienced Drakes, and October Caddis. With decrease water, each pocket appears to carry just a few fish on this magical time interval.

Freestone rivers just like the Arkansas supply super selection all through the seasons, and that selection will check your total ability set. In distinction to tailwaters, situations on the Arkansas change continuously, and the big selection of aquatic invertebrate exercise can throw the guide at you. Understanding circulate charges, water temperatures, insect life cycles, and the way these variables management prime lies will open the gates to success. For those who can roll with the punches, you’ll do effectively. 

Defending Grape Creek

Trout in freestone streams are robust, battle-tested, and resilient creatures. The Arkansas River has been offered with many pure and man-made hurdles over the previous 100 years, and all the time appears to come back again stronger time after time. Including protections for wild locations ought to nonetheless be our number-one concern, and by chance over the past three many years, issues appear to be transferring in the appropriate course. The designation of Browns Canyon—north of Salida—as a nationwide monument in 2015 was a key win for the Arkansas River. The 21,000-plus acres of federal- and state-managed lands are nothing wanting magical, and the river right here has among the highest trout densities per mile in the whole Arkansas drainage.

Fly Fishing Colorado's Arkansas River
Grape Creek is the biggest tributary to the Arkansas between Salida and Pueblo Reservoir. It runs by way of two completely different Wilderness Examine Areas, and will discover additional protections from hardrock mining if these WSAs grow to be elevated to federally designated wilderness areas. (John Fielder picture)

In line with the native nonprofit group Mates of Browns Canyon: “Searching, fishing, rafting, horseback using, mountaineering, and camping traditions play essential roles in Browns Canyon, and President Obama’s nationwide monument proclamation protects all these traditions, making certain their preservation, together with the pure character of this nationwide treasure.”

Whereas some key protections have been added with the designation of Browns Canyon Nationwide Monument, the Arkansas nonetheless faces many threats. Exhausting rock mining has a protracted and infrequently ugly historical past in Rocky Mountain watersheds, and at present, we’re confronted with one other potential hurdle on one of many Arkansas River’s main tributaries.

Grape Creek flows from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the DeWeese Reservoir, simply north of Westcliffe, Colorado. Leaving the reservoir, the creek flows usually north by way of a distant, rugged, semiarid canyon panorama, finally emptying into the Arkansas River simply west of Cañon Metropolis. This can be a paradise for small-water fly fishers.

Alongside Grape Creek’s path are an Space of Crucial Environmental Concern, in addition to two Wilderness Examine Areas (WSAs). WSAs are federal lands with out everlasting enhancements or human habitations, managed to protect their pure situations. They’re eligible to at some point grow to be designated wilderness areas.

Nevertheless, a overseas mining exploration firm, Zephyr Minerals, Ltd., has already drilled unsuccessfully for gold inside one in every of Grape Creek’s Wilderness Examine Areas. Zephyr Minerals constructed drilling platforms on the steep slopes above the creek, hauling supplies with low-flying helicopters, and pumped water uphill out of Grape Creek to be used with the drilling tools. All this was performed with sturdy opposition from native residents and conservation teams. Zephyr Minerals, Ltd. now plans to use for future mining operations, both within the Grape Creek drainage or on adjoining public lands.

Present nationwide legislative efforts are underway to improve these WSAs and designate them as federally protected wilderness areas. However wilderness designation would grow to be unbelievable if a industrial gold (laborious rock) mine, full with processing plant, waste rock storage areas, and a tailings storage space have been to be established inside or adjoining to the WSA.

As the biggest tributary to the Arkansas River between Salida and Pueblo Reservoir, the Grape Creek drainage is effective fish and wildlife habitat. The higher and decrease Grape Creek WSAs and adjoining public lands comprise practically 30,000 acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat. As the one water supply for a lot of miles in any course, the creek itself is a treasured magnet for all kinds of vegetation and animals. Brown and rainbow trout thrive in Grape Creek. Within the creek’s skinny riparian zone, mule deer, black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and elk might be discovered. A big herd of bighorn sheep lives within the crags and cliffs above the creek, and the sheep descend to the water day by day.

Alongside the creek are plentiful vegetation and timber distinctive to southern Colorado, together with a number of types of cactus, narrowleaf cottonwoods, in addition to the piñon/juniper woodlands on the slopes above the creek. This rugged tributary oasis is threatened. Longtime Royal Gorge Anglers information and backcountry specialist Paul Vertrees says: “This lower-elevation wilderness holds vital worth for outside recreation, together with fishing, looking, mountaineering, and lots of different quiet use actions. Mining leaves everlasting scars that by no means heal on this mountainous, semiarid panorama and on the creek itself . . . to not point out the eventual potential impression on the Arkansas River from its tributary confluence downstream.”

Gold mining is likely one of the most damaging industries on the planet—it could actually contaminate water, harm employees, destroy pristine environments, and produce chemical contamination. Producing gold for one 18-karat, 0.333-ounce marriage ceremony ring alone generates 20 tons of waste (USGS, 2020). Many involved events have devoted numerous hours and sources to carry consciousness to Zephyr Minerals operations on this space, however none have performed extra to champion this trigger than the native nonprofit Royal Gorge Preservation Undertaking (RGPP). RGPP’s mission is to “shield and to teach the general public concerning the worth of tourism within the Royal Gorge space as a viable public purpose and to protect the pure great thing about the Royal Gorge area from environmentally damaging human exercise.”

The crew at RGPP has performed an exceptional job of training the general public in regards to the Zephyr Minerals exploration actions and the consequential threats to wild fish and clear water within the Grape Creek drainage. Fortunately, with nice work comes sturdy assist from nice corporations within the fly-fishing trade. This 12 months, in collaboration with Royal Gorge Anglers and as part of their Wholesale Environmental Grants Program, Patagonia contributed $20,000 to the battle in opposition to Zephyr Minerals by funding grassroots consciousness efforts by way of the Royal Gorge Preservation Undertaking.

“Patagonia is in enterprise to avoid wasting our dwelling planet, and our Wholesale Environmental Grants Program is likely one of the methods we assist our mission,” stated Patagonia Fly Fish Regional Steward David Allen. Over the previous 10 years, Patagonia has granted $4.5 million to environmental nonprofits by way of the corporate’s Wholesale Environmental Grants Program. Simply over $1 million of that whole has funded wild fish tasks.

Allen went on to explain Patagonia’s mission inside this program. “The intent of this system is to actively enlist the assistance of our specialty fly store companions to guard the wild locations they name dwelling water. We stand for the waters we stand in.”

Taylor Edrington is the proprietor of Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon Metropolis, Colorado.

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