As brisk mountain water flowed through a deep pool, the silky surface was split by the surge of a burley brown trout, its big hooked jaw clamped angrily on a No. 16 stimulator. The trout leaped high in the air, shaking its head frantically from side-to-side to dislodge the hook imbedded in its lower lip. As the line tightened, the fish charged across the pool, the reel shrieking as the line fed. After several runs, the 16-inch beauty surrendered to fatigue and was led to the riverbank and released.
Folks around the Salida, Colorado area say that’s the Arkansas Miracle, but it’s not a story of Hope — Bill, Hillary and Socks the cat — it’s a story of deliverance.
From its headwaters in the Sawatch mountains near the Continental Divide, the Arkansas River tumbles down steep slopes, augmented along the way by streams of gin-clear water from neighboring ranges, supporting a veritable Eden for brown, rainbow and occasionally cutthroat trout. It wasn’t always such a nirvana.
For almost a century and a half, mines — gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper — around Leadville spewed thousands of gallons of toxic wastewater laced with cadmium, zinc and other hazardous metals directly into the east fork of the river. To further speed the process, two four-mile long drainage tunnels were dug in 1906 and 1943 discharging even more effluent into the Arkansas.
Although most of the mines had closed by the 1960s, the drainage continued — more than four million gallons a day — until the Arkansas was nothing more than what many viewed as a sewer defined by stained, barren banks and an absence of life.
When metal sulfides oxidize, sulfuric acid is a by-product. When the acid-laden drainage flows into streams, iron ions separate forming iron hydroxide, which clog streambeds, leaving hideous rust-colored stains on rocks and along the banks. The acidic water exterminates all life in and around the stream.
But thanks to a 1993 Superfund cleanup ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the river miraculously rebounded and is more ecologically balanced than ever. Now it’s a resilient freestone stream teeming with trout — more than 4,000 per mile — averaging 12 to 14 inches and some exceeding 16 inches. This cleanup has significantly changed this river for the better.
THE RIVER NOW
The Arkansas stakes its reputation as a brown trout stream with a few rainbows and cutthroats thrown into the mix. Most of the browns range from 12 inches to 16 inches long, but there are larger ones lurking in deeper runs and remote canyons. The Arkansas probably isn’t the place for anglers who want to catch wall-hangers, but it’s definitely the place for those who want to catch lots of decent-sized trout.
Boulders litter the river so long casts are usually fruitless. You’ll often find fish in the shallows alee of the main current. Stealth when approaching and fishing for these wild trout is advisable because they spook at the first sign of danger.
Although the Arkansas hosts a diversity of aquatic insect life — baetis, pale morning duns, red quills and green drakes to name a few — the caddis is king.
Fly-fishermen come from all over the world to fish the legendary, if misnamed, “Mother’s Day” caddis hatch. In early April, long before the actual Mother’s Day date, as water temperatures surpass 50 degrees, caddis begin hatching near Canon City. They follow the warming water upstream intensifying in number to blizzard-like swarms clogging automobile radiators and making it difficult for anglers to breathe or as Rod Patch, owner of the ArkAngler in Salida, calls it a “breathe-through-your-teeth hatch.” These mega-hatches continue until the spring runoff in late May stops the action.
During this two-month span, it’s possible to fish every stage of the caddis’ life cycle. Imitating the pupae stage seems to work best — cast upstream and let the fly dead-drift past you. As the fly begins to drag in the downstream current, lift the fly to mimic a rising pupa.
“I tell people to fish with spinner patterns if they see fish surface-feeding on dead caddis from the night before,” Patch says. “If nothing is happening on the surface, try an adult caddis pattern with a bead-head pupa as a dropper.”
Patch says it’s better to fish a mile or two ahead of the hatch because the trout ahead of the cloud are more likely to feed on imitations. This will greatly increase your success of landing trout as you’ll possibly have fewer fellow fishermen to compete with along with more actively feeding fish.
Some of the most popular early spring patterns include Olive Hare’s Ear and Stonefly Nymphs, Deep Sparkle and Beadhead Caddis Pupae Emergers, Emergent Sparkle or Bubble Caddis Pupae for rising insects and Puterbaugh’s Black Foam Caddis, standard Elk-Hair Caddis in chocolate or black or Goddard’s Caddis to mimic adult flies. The best spent adult pattern is a No. 16 Lawson Spent Partridge Caddis.
FISHING THE ARKANSAS
Traveling south from Leadville, you meet the river at the Highway 24 bridge, which marks the beginning of Hayden Ranch, more than five miles of the newest public access lease. Upstream, the Arkansas is little more than a small, winding brook, more like an Eastern stream, with willow-lined banks. But below the bridge it picks up speed and volume as it slices through Brown’s Canyon between Buena Vista and Salida, some of the most scenic and productive water on the river. Although this area is most easily accessed by boat, it is possible to walk upstream from the lower end of the canyon at Hecla Junction, but you must make a difficult river crossing to enter public land.
The Arkansas River is big and long enough to change its character significantly along its run. By the time the Arkansas reaches Salida, it levels out and morphs into a meandering, classic Rocky Mountain river with wide gravel bars, boulder fields and deep runs. For the next 50 miles, U.S. Highway 50 parallels the river. Three artificials-only sections near Salida — Big Bend, Smith Lease and an area downstream of Salida — offer a combined 15 miles of special-regulation water with lower kill limits.
From Salida to Canon City, the river drops through the spectacular Royal Gorge, which is almost impossible to fish due to its churning rapids and deep pools. The 20-mile section from Texas Creek to Royal Gorge features excellent fly-fishing in the spring and fall, but the numerous Class V rapids make it a playground for whitewater enthusiasts in the summer, so expect crowds at times in addition to numerous fellow fishermen.
The Arkansas’ currents can be deceptively strong and its rocks dangerously slippery, so wading staffs and felt-soled shoes are necessary. Watch your step and slow is safe when wading this type of river. Don’t take anything for granted. Any wading is dangerous in flows of more than 1,000 cubic feet per second. Daily flow reports are available at www.royalgorgeanglers.com. It is best to always be cautious and never tempt fate when the conditions look to be faster than you are comfortable.
Most Arkansas River anglers prefer an 8- or 9-foot rod, with weight-forward, floating 5-weight line and 7 1/2- to 9-foot leaders with a 5X tippet.
Get out the fall patterns when August rolls around. A big hopper with a small beadhead hung from a dropper is nearly a guarantee of fast and furious action that continues through most of September. Attractor patterns like stimulators, Royal Wulffs, yellow humpies, H & L variants and royal stimulators work well too.
The Arkansas River is about 115 miles southwest of Denver and easy to reach. From Denver take I-25 south to Colorado Springs. Take Highway 115 to Penrose. Go west on U.S. 50 to Canon City. Past Canon City and the Royal Gorge, the road parallels the river to Salida. North of Salida, U.S. 285 and U.S. 24 follow the river to its headwaters.