Colorado’s Good News

We were driving North into Colorado from Taos on one of those brilliant October mornings in the Southern Rockies. I had always loved those days the most. When you live in West Texas, any day in the mountains with your Dad and your fly rod was special. I had been raised on Bass ponds in Texas and small streams in Northern New Mexico. Now that I was out of college, had a job, and a new pickup truck, I was taking my Father on a trip to a big river. We had fished the Rio Grande, but after walking out of the Box Canyon near Questa, I suspected that I did not need to go back there any time soon. As the aspen and cottonwood leaves blew across US 285 on Poncha Pass, we talked of how we would fish the Arkansas. Royal Wulffs or Rio Grande Kings, wet or dry, would probably work just fine. My Dad loved Brown Trout and wet flies. That was twenty-five years ago.

Once home to the endangered, but resurgent Greenback Cutthroat, the Arkansas is somewhat of an exception to many Western rivers, in that it travels more than 150 miles from its headwaters on Mt. Massive until it encounters a dam in Pueblo, on Colorado’s Eastern plains. It is a resilient freestone that has suffered its share of man-made misfortune and yet with the help of a “Superfund” cleanup project brought on-line at California Gulch in 1993, has become more ecologically balanced than many ever expected.

In a time where crowds, pollution and Whirling Disease have permeated the brains of fly fishers everywhere, this river looms as a constant reminder of what can be done when agencies cooperate and people look for solutions
instead of protecting turf. The Arkansas’ reputation as the top whitewater ride in the country has turned rafting and kayaking into a multi-million dollar business and has focused attention on water quality and scenic beauty.
What was once the classic battle of “row vs. wade” has now become a partnership in success. Simply stated, whitewater rafting is good when fly fishing is not, and conversely, lower water preferred by fly fishers is not cherished by boaters. The Arkansas Headwaters Association, a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, can be given a great deal of the credit due for improving access and regulating use. Since the river is multi-use with heavy agricultural demand, the process of balancing interests is tantamount to reading poetry in the middle of a battlefield. However, only recently the annual releases from reservoirs on tributaries, which always blew away Spring Caddis hatches, were changed to coincide with natural runoff or to occur during Winter months for downstream storage. This positive outcome was simply the result of good communications between water board directors and fly fishing interests. More details please visit:-

To make a long story short, the Arkansas has been transformed from a drainage suffering from heavy metal pollution and neglect, to one with good water quality and lots of attention. Along with insightful flow management, improved water has led to an improved fishery. Primarily a Brown Trout stream, the Arkansas has a smattering of healthy Rainbows and a few Snake River Cutts. Most Browns are from 12 inches to 16 inches with some larger ones lurking about deeper runs and in remote canyon stretches. The great news is that they are plentiful and growing older. The only thing that keeps them from achieving trophy class is a lack of forage base. This may not be the place for those of you who want only large fish, but it is definitely the place for those who want lots of fish and loads of fun.

Twenty years ago, trout fed from an aquatic base of Stoneflies and Caddis along with a wonderful terrestrial buffet, due to the semi-arid environment. Today, that staple has been augmented with Baetis, Pale Morning Duns, Red Quills and Green Drakes. Cleaner water has certainly caused Mayfly populations to soar, however big bugs and Caddis are still the favorite fare, as in most freestone rivers.

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