The most popular trout fishing destinations in Colorado are stretches of rivers immediately below dams referred to as "tailwaters." The water that comes out of the bottom of dams stays at a relatively constant temperature all year, allowing trout to feed on the coldest days of winter and the hottest days of summer. But anglers who value the unbridled character of a free flowing river still can turn to the 120 miles of the Arkansas River between its headwaters in the Sawatch Range near Leadville and CaÃ±on City downstream. In the Colorado Rockies, perhaps only the Yampa can match the Arkansas for its free-flowing qualities.
However, the Arkansas, unlike the Yampa, is purely a trout stream for those 120 miles. And fly fishers who have grown a tad lazy from fishing for the desensitized trout in tailwaters will have to sharpen their stalking skills to catch autumn browns on the clear waters of the Arkansas.
Brown trout are the dominant species in the river, and unlike trout in places such as Utah's Green River, or even the rainbows in the Yampa below Stagecoach Reservoir, which have become accustomed to human presence, the browns in the Arkansas spook and stay spooked at the sight of anglers walking and wading the riverbank.
The phrase every angler dreads is, "I wish you'd been here yesterday," and that old axiom prevailed last weekend along the stretch of the Arkansas from Buena Vista to Salida.
The weather Sept. 29 and 30 had been nasty -- a mix of rain and snow -- and it produced the autumn hatch of callibaetis mayflies that fly fishers dream of, according to the staff at ArkAnglers in Buena Vista. They had received reports of people catching upward of 15 fish Thursday.
Friday into the weekend was a different story. But anglers who persisted with small beadhead nymphs below an attractor dry fly were getting occasional strikes on both. It was tough fishing in a stretch said to contain 2,000 fish per mile.
Erin Bull at Anglers Junction fly shop in Salida said she fishes with a size 16 red beadhead Copper John below a dry fly indicator with success much of the year.
The attraction in the "Ark" is the population of wild browns, which spawn successfully there. The fish don't get very large, 12 to 14 inches is standard, but they are vigorous enough to proliferate in spite of the fact that there are no special regulations beyond the standard Colorado Department of Wildlife regulations limiting the catch on the river.
Ironically, the river used to hold bigger fish before several municipalities in the valley improved their wastewater treatment plants, effectively reducing the nutrient load and consequently the invertebrate life in the river. Happily, the river also has been cleansed of much of the heavy metal load that once leached out of mine tailings. The result is that the fish are living several years longer and gaining respectable size.
The Arkansas is best known for the clouds of caddis flies that begin to hatch in mid-May. Not surprisingly, small sticks plucked from the river last week were wallpapered with small caddis cases hiding the larval form of the aquatic insects.
May is just six months away.