Ark Anglers

How to Approach Fishing on the Arkansas River

At our fly shops we get asked what to use and where to go. Much more rarely do we hear questions like “how should I fish?” or “what type of water should I fish?” or “what sort of food is available and what are the feeding patterns throughout the day?” However, these are really the more important questions. We can show you our vast selection of flies and we can spend hours scrutinizing the map, but once one is out on the stream it really comes down to how one fishes and the observations that guide those decisions. Whether it’s one’s first time on the Arkansas, or it’s simply been a long time, a review of the traits that distinguish this river from others is helpful. The more one understands about this fishery, the better one can integrate observations on the stream into a more meaningful framework.

The Arkansas River is not a tailwater

Many visitors to the Arkansas come from Colorado’s Front Range communities and have cut their teeth on rivers like the South Platte, North Platte, Frying Pan, Green or Bighorn. The controlled water flow and water temperature and the specificity of foodstuffs on these rivers make fishing them both challenging and formulaic. Hence the common question in our flyshops, “What are they hitting?” and the sort of bewildering response that can result. It is rare to find Arkansas River trout totally keyed onto any one bug, much less any one artificial representation. Rather, at any time there are particular aquatic insects that are active and others that are plausibly available to the fish. Representations of these aquatics, or attractor patterns that are simply too enticing to ignore, will often induce a hit from fish whether they are actively feeding or not, whether they are keyed onto a specific emergence or not.

Take mid-April as an example. Most mornings there will be a midge emergence, with midge pupae drawing trout into the riffles and pocket water to feed. If one pumps fish stomachs at that time of day, the majority of what is found will be immature midges. However, one will likely also find a caddis larva, a mayfly nymph, maybe a stonefly nymph or cranefly larva as well. There may be a cased caddis in there. Similarly, when fishing at that time of day, a well-presented chocolate midge pupa in a size 20-22 will take a lot of fish. But to present it well, one needs some weight and so fishing it behind a golden or yellow sally stonefly nymph will get it to the right depth in the faster water where the fish are feeding. Being plausible, even if not active, those stonefly nymphs will take fish too. Sometimes a lot. So it’s not so much about what precise fly the fish may be eating but the type of water they are working and the range of options that could work there. Understanding the dynamic at work is key to figuring out where fish are holding and what they might then be willing to eat.

The Arkansas River is a brown trout fishery

This statement, though historically true, has become less so in recent years. The introduction of the Hofer-Colorado River rainbow cross has seen the population pattern diversify, with about 25% of the fish now rainbows against a 75% majority of browns. At times of the year or day when water temperatures are quite cold, browns will lay dormant and rainbows will seem to be the predominant fish. Also, well-aerated deep green pools will often hold suspended rainbows where browns are rarely found. Still, the majority of the fish are browns and a strategy that accounts for their essential behavior is warranted at most times of the year.

Brown trout do not thrive in high velocity current. When one looks at the gradient of the Arkansas between Leadville and Canon City, this issue is bound to arise. Closer examination, however, also reveals that the fast current velocity tends to carry away a lot of the smaller sediments and gravel, depositing them into bar formations in areas of lesser gradient, and leaving behind a jumbled riverbed of multi-sized rocks and boulders. It is this tremendous variety in rock size that creates micro-habitats, velocity shelters, for brown trout throughout the river corridor. When working the Arkansas, sight fishing to feeding fish is relatively rare. Rather, one reads the structure of the river bed and, particularly, the shoreline, fishing that structure to locate the browns.

Brown trout on the Arkansas are wild fish. They reproduce naturally and retain the characteristics traditionally associated with their species – an innate wariness of human beings, a predilection for structure coupled with an aversion to fast current, and a strong predatory instinct most often manifested by ambush behavior. The following tips will help in fishing to brown trout:

  • Keep a low profile. If an Arkansas River brown trout sees you it will normally move into deeper water and quit feeding. Approach the river from the fish’s perspective, remembering that they generally are facing upstream (so approach good water from below) and are often situated in the pocket water along the shoreline. Wear muted colors.
  • Cast to the most vulnerable fish first. Browns spook easily – the more exposed they feel the less pressure they will tolerate. Shallow water or the pockets along the edges should be drifted before the more obvious seams and shelf lines. We often say that people are standing where they should fish and fishing where they should stand. One can divide the fishable area of the river into a series of parallel drifts; start with the ones holding the most exposed fish and move out from there. Several drifts in each lane is usually sufficient – browns will generally bite or they won’t but casting to a certain fish for half an hour will not normally change its mind.
  • Give yourself room to move. With the previous paragraph in mind, don’t simply pick a spot that looks like it should have fish and stay with it all day. This is not a tailwater and the brown trout are unaccustomed to pressure. Several drifts in each lane is sufficient. Then take a few steps upstream and repeat the process. Cover the water. Then keep moving.
  • The right presentation is more important than the right fly. Even when Arkansas River browns seemed completely keyed in on a blue wing olive mayfly hatch, they may well rise and eat a large Royal Wulff if it has a good natural drift. Brown trout are opportunists. If something doesn’t frighten them or make them suspicious, they will often eat it. By the same token, if they are not keyed onto a particular bug, one can prey on their predatory instincts, twitching a large hopper in shallow water or stripping a flashy streamer through shoreline pockets. In these cases, energizing the fly, giving it some irresistible action, will induce fish to strike when they might otherwise be skeptical.

The Arkansas River aquatic insect population is diverse

Get current information about hatches or sub-surface aquatic insect activity before heading to the river, but don’t let statements about what happened yesterday blind one to what’s happening today. Often fishing the Arkansas River successfully can have more to do with presenting flies in the right type of water than which flies specifically are presented. This is because there are often multiple aquatic insects that could be available to the fish. With the early April example, morning midges are common, as are afternoon blue wing olive mayflies, but caddis larvae, cranefly larvae, stonefly nymphs, and caddis pupae can all be mixed in as well, not to mention emerging brown trout fry. A change in water temperature, ambient light, wind, or flow could make one type of food more likely than another. There is no substitute for objective observation on the stream – go out well informed about yesterday but with an open mind about today.

Changing elevation mimics changing the season

With the tremendous change in elevation from Canon City to Leadville, one can move through different seasons of the river just by changing locations. Again using the April example, on April 15th one can often find “mother’s day caddis” in large numbers, bringing fish to the surface in Canon City. On that same day, in upper Bighorn Sheep Canyon near Salida, a heavy cumulus cloud can cause a strong emergence of blue wing olive mayflies. Meanwhile, above Buena Vista in the Granite Gorge, warm sun radiating off the boulders can cause surface feeding on midges in sheltered back eddies beneath the cliffs. Three totally different feeding events in three different locations on the same day on the same river? The gradient of the river is reflected in a gradient of air and water temperature as well. A day that reminds one of early summer in Canon City will be spring-like in Salida and feel like late winter in Granite. One needs to modify one’s fishing to fit the altitude where one wades in.

The Arkansas River has exceptional public access

From Leadville to Canon City, the Arkansas River traverses over 100 miles of terrain. Throughout this corridor there is extensive public access, in the form of BLM/USFS lands, state park sites administered by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, and leased lands/state wildlife areas historically managed by the Division of Wildlife. The river is paralleled by US Highways 24, 285, or 50 along much of its path and the mothballed Denver and Rio Grande Western rail line follows it as well.

All of this access is critical to a good fishing experience on the Arkansas. As mentioned above, covering some ground when pursuing our brown trout is essential, but the quality of the water is important too. Fish that have been recently disturbed will not immediately return to feeding. As a result, anglers on the Arkansas typically give one another a lot more space than on many Colorado tailwaters. Leaving one’s fellow angler at least a few hundred yards of water is customary when entering the Arkansas.

Preparation for fishing the Arkansas

Most Arkansas River anglers use a nine foot five-weight rod and a weight-forward floating line. For all but the smaller midge patterns, 5X tippet is adequate and many anglers will use 3-4X when fishing bigger flies during higher flows. Leaders over nine foot in length are rarely necessary and are a hindrance in the wind. Waders are a must in spring and fall, when water temperatures are in the 40s and low 50s, but many people wet wade the Arkansas during the summer. Whatever the time of year, stout wading boots with felt soles or a wading tread are strongly recommended as are a wading staff and a landing net. The mixture of rock size and texture that make the Arkansas such a productive fishery also make it a wading challenge. Thankfully, slime and moss are not much of an issue.

The swift and turbulent Arkansas requires extra weight and high buoyancy strike indicators for nymphing. Dry fly anglers will want to focus on patterns that float well and are highly visible, or fish with an indicator dry to help locate low visibility patterns on our broken water. The use of multiple flies, whether nymphing or dry fly fishing has become customary on the Arkansas, and the “dry-dropper” approach is nearly universal during the summer. Specific rigs will vary with the seasons, but the use of an indicator dry or attractor nymph in conjunction with more imitative patterns is a very common approach.

Information on fishing the Arkansas

As mentioned above, hitting the river with an understanding of recent and potential events is essential. In that regard, the fishing conditions reports on this website are the best starting point. They should provide an understanding of the aquatic insect activity and feeding behavior that one is most likely to encounter. Coupling that information with one’s own observations should lead to success. Still, there will always be specific questions that arise and for those we stand ready to help. Stop by our stores in Salida or Buena Vista, call us at 719-539-4223, or email us for help with any aspect of fishing this river. Accurate, timely information is our number one product at ArkAnglers and it is always freely provided in a coherent way.