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Fly Fishing The Arkansas River

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One of the finest attributes of the Arkansas River is its accessibility. Roughly 60% has public access and most of it is well marked along major highways. Traveling south from Leadville, you will pick up the river at the Highway 24 Bridge. This marks the beginning of over five miles of the Hayden Lease. The river here is a small, winding stream with willow lined banks. From this point, it begins to pick up speed and water from tributaries as it cuts through Brown's Canyon between Buena Vista and Salida. Brown's Canyon is without a doubt one of the most scenic wilderness canyons in the state of Colorado. The best access is by boat, launching at Fisherman's Bridge and taking out at Hecla Junction. You can hike upstream from the lower end of the canyon at Hecla, however you must cross to the east side to access public land and that can be tricky except during low water. Once across, you can use the abandoned rail bed as a trail system and walk the entire canyon, stopping to fish pool after pool of productive water.

By the time the river reaches Salida, it has leveled in elevation and becomes a meandering, classic Rocky Mountain freestone river with wide gravel bars, boulder fields and deep runs accented with shallow pools and backwater eddies. For the next 50 miles, U.S. Highway 50 shadows the Arkansas, providing the most popular recreational access. From Salida to Texas Creek, fly fishers find easy access, wonderful habitat and great fish populations. From Texas Creek to Canon City, the river begins a gradual drop to the foothills. This stretch includes the Royal Gorge, which holds some nice fish, but is extremely difficult to navigate. The twenty miles from Texas Creek to the Gorge takes you through a beautiful granite canyon, complete with one of the largest Big Horn Sheep herds in the Rockies. This water offers excellent fly fishing during the spring and fall. During the summer, it is literally a water park because of the numerous Class IV and V rapids. I particularly like this section due to its close proximity to Front Range cities, and because it looks more difficult to fish, many newcomers pass it by. Actually, the fish here tend to congregate along the edges and outside seams, making shoreline hikes a nice way to spend a morning. The Arkansas in Canon City offers excellent fishing along 3.5 miles of improved river trail systems, called the Riverwalk. This water is public along the trail side (south side) and provides great walking, biking, and bird watching as well. The Riverwalk runs from the ninth street trail head to McKenzie Ave. on the east end of town.

The next fly fishing opportunity comes at Pueblo Reservoir and the tailwater below the dam. The reservoir itself can be excellent for Wipers, Crappie, and Bass. Small Mouth and Large Mouth Bass regularly fall to float tubers, but a powerboat is necessary to effectively chase Wipers. The tailwater has just undergone a habitat improvement project. The selective placement of small and large boulders has created an efficient trout habitat where nonproductive water once existed. The DOW is considering a special regulation stretch of water, so in the future this tailwater could become even a more productive fishery, especially during the winter when so many other waters are locked in the grip of winter.

Even though the Arkansas is the number one whitewater rafted river in the lower 48, the use of McKenzie style drift boats is not encouraged after the river drops below 1000 cfs. During runoff and high water these boats generally work fine, but inflatables in the 13 to 14 foot range such as self bailers from Aire, Maravia, and Down River are the best. Personal pontoon craft in the 8 to 10 foot range navigate this river extremely well. To drift this river, understand your skill level and get a good river map. Launch areas are well placed from Granite to Canon City, giving you the option of short or long floats. Even if you use a boat, probably the best way to fish this river is to get out and walk/wade the boulder fields, rock gardens and long shorelines. Fish hold along shorelines primarily and a competent fly fisher can break the river down into smaller systems and work fish up close and personal. Wading can be dangerous in many places, so use studded boots and a wading staff. It makes sense to be prepared, since the Arkansas is one of those rivers that tempt us to wade "just a little further."

Ninety-five percent of the time, I fish this river with a 9 ft. 5 wt. rod. Afternoons can be breezy, so wind penetration is a must. If you have an 8 ft. 4 wt., it should be perfect for fishing dry flies. One of this river's assets is that it provides something for everyone; dry fly fishing, nymphing and streamer fishing can be effective most of the time. The Arkansas is not an early morning river. I find it fishes better from 9:00 AM till 2 PM, and 5:00 PM till just after dark. Large Browns didn't get big by exposing themselves to the numerous predators along the drainage. A lantern and a short sink tip line can be a good combination for those who enjoy night fishing. I find it invigorating and extremely productive, but it does require knowledge of the streambed for wading safety purposes. Besides, all you need is a #8 Black Woolly Bugger - well, maybe two.

About the author:

Bill Edrington has been the proprietor of Royal Gorge Anglers, fly fishing shop and guide service, since 1990. Website Blog


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