Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fly-fishing the Arkansas River

Arkansas River Rainbows - Making a Strong Comeback!

(Click on Pictures to Enlarge)

There is nothing like a trip to the Arkansas River in mid-July to renew a fly fisherman's faith in his or her ability to catch trout on a dry fly. This year the river dropped about 2 feet over-night on July 6 (July 4th and FibArk being over) and as usual this freaked the fish out bigtime. For one day. The bigger fish hunkered down in their deep holes worrying about just how low the water would drop and the wee fish were having fun investigating the recently new shallows. I told the lads just wait, tomorrow or the next day this river will be absolutely perfect. Was it ever! The fish were very hungry after fighting the snow melt's high water and this coincided with a proliferation of the bug population with warmer weather. Under these conditions it's not uncommon for a moderately skilled fly-fisherman to catch 15-20 trout in a couple 2 or 3 hours by wading the shoreline, tying on a #14 or #16 adams wulff or yellow humpy and drifting it naturally through any fishy looking run. On the Ark, there will almost always be trout where you think there will be (assuming moderate skill at reading water...) and you'll get a few attempts to catch em before spook-off. If after 3 or 4 casts there is no take, move upstream 5 yards and repeat the process. Your arms will soon be tired of hauling in very frisky trout.

The fish count on the Arkansas between Howard and Salida must be phenomenally high. As usual, nothing real big (16" is kinda "big" on the Ark), but who can complain with dry-fly action of 12-16" trout all day long? These boys are fighters too - very healthy and strong fish.

Since the onslaught of whirling disease decimated the rainbow trout population the Arkansas River has been (and very much still is in my opinion) predominately brown trout water. Brown trout naturally reproduce and sustain themselves in the Ark with no stocking required. But the rainbows are a different story. I think they have a harder time with the warm water season on the Ark and I already mentioned the whirling disease problem that started in 1987. I've had summers where I fished the Ark for a week or two and caught no rainbows at all or maybe just one or two. But the rainbows are making a nice comeback thanks to the introduction of crossbreed between the German Hofer and the Colorado River rainbow. The German Hofer is very resistant to whirling disease and breeding it with the Colorado River rainbow gives it the smarts to adapt to living wild in the Ark. If you ask me the plan is working. I caught 7 rainbows one morning and they were all aggressive strikers and real fighters. A couple went 14-15 inches. What an unsuspected treat that was! THe Hofer crossbred rainbows are more silvery than deep green and red. Most of the rainbows I landed appeared to be Hofers.

A Hofer Crosbred Rainbow from the Arkansas River

Colorado River Rainbow from the Ark

Another Hofer

Besides being easy to wade (in lower water season) I also like the Ark because like the Fryingpan river road, U.S. Hwy 50 between Howard, CO and Salida, CO runs on the "right" side of the river. That is, for a right handed (casting) fly-fisherman you simply step out of your truck and you are on the "right" side of the river. You casting over the river without worrying about getting hung in trees and willows. This is unlike the Conejos river in which both CO Hwy 17 and Platoro road are on the "wrong" side of the river for its entire length. This is no problem during low water or where there is access...but as you'll see can have its consequences during high water flows.

All this said, the main fly-fishing action on the Arkansas River continues to come from the brown trout. Here's a few pictures of the typical Ark brownies. Man, what fighters and what quantity!

I was very much looking forward to fishing the run below Swissvale one morning...and got there early to claim my spot. I was fishing downstream of the main run...waiting til 9am or so when the sun would hit the rocks and really get the bugs on the move before fishing my favorite stretch. I looked up on the cliff and some guy waves to me. I wave back to let him know I am "there" and sat down on a rock to change flies. I could not believe it when seconds later I saw him and his wife come scrambling down the cliff and jump in right in front of me! Spin fisherman. Grrrrr. Worse yet, the guy inserts his wife between he and I so if I objected (as he knew I would...), I'd have to argue with a woman. Plus, I could tell by the look on her face she knew they were in the wrong and she was quite embarrassed. Obviously their move was not her idea. I just left...but I was steamed. I didn't argue, but I did slam my tailgate a couple times extra hard and spun out when I left. Talk about ruining an excellent morning! So, bunghole, if you're out there and reading this - mind your manners will ya! You should never jump in directly in front of a fisherman...especially a fly-fisherman working his way upstream and especially on a river that has miles and miles of nice wadable water full of fish! Anyhow, I drove into Salida and treated myself to a nice breakfast at Pancake Patio.

It was hot this year and fishing for 4 or 5 hours in the sun was wearing me out. Luckily, downtown Salida has real nice piece of water for swimming and man will it cool you off! One trip across the river and back will give you some inkling of what the life of a trout must be constantly dealing with swift currents.

Here are some various pictures of the Arkansas River near downtown Salida at the water park. What a great place to spend some time and take a cool dip in the river! One swim across the river and back will give you some idea of a trout's life constantly battling the current.


Back at the ole Sugarbush campground, I was making coffee one morning and had s sneaking suspicion someone or something was watching me. These velvet bucks let me get close enough to snap off a photo. Nice as they are, they are nothing like the monster buck that came bounding through the campground a couple years back. That sucker had 2' high christmas trees on each side of his head!

Velvet bucks (Click on Picture to Enlarge)

This year I began dropping a small nymph (#16 prince or stonefly) about 16" off my dry fly. I was definitely catching more fish than years past, and hooking some bigger fish. In the picture below the river is coming around a bend from the right and pushing alot of food over to the left bank.

Looking upstream, you can see an island just taking in the morning sun and a bolder to the left of it with a nice run of water between. I had hooked a big guy there a couple days before and came back to see if I could fool him again as I never got a good hook set on him. I tried first with an orange stimulator and he rose but didn't take (sheee-it!). I threw it a few more times so that he would think that's all the action I had. Then, I sat on the back and tied on a nymph dropper. First cast, he swirled and hit the nymph and I got a good hook set. Oh he was pissed and headed to the current in the middle of the river and downstream in a hurry. I was ready for this and was bolder hopping to keep up. I was like OK big boy, now it's time for you to jump and just as I thought this he did - about 2 foot high! I kept my line tight and thought I did everything right when my line suddenly went slack. FUCK. I just continued fishing and tried not to dwell on the monster just lost. After 4 or 5 cast with hits and no hook-up, I inspected the nymph and was just flabergasted to find a broken hook!! It wasn't surprising to me that such a large fish was capable of breaking a hook. What is surprising, though, is that the weakest link in my setup was the hook and not the 3lb 5x Maxim fluorcarbon tippet which I used to drop the nymph off my dry fly. I suppose that is a ringing endorsement for Maxim's 5x tippet material!

I continue to find new and inventive ways to hook, and lose, really big trout. Nobody is better at it than yours truly.

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