Time: 11:30AM – 6:00PM
Location: Upstream from Vallie Bridge; Fremont – Chafee county line
Fish Landed: 8
Every year at this time I visit the Arkansas River in my perpetual quest to locate the sweet spot of the annual grannom caddis hatch. In my 25 years in Colorado I discovered this to be a frustrating hit or miss proposition. In 2015 Danny Ryan joined me in the difficult search for the mythical leading edge of the emergence, as he read the stories but was too new to Colorado and the sport of fly fishing to have experienced the madness. The ArkAnglers report indicated that the hatch advanced to Salida, and caddis were present throughout Big Horn Sheep Canyon. I’ve grown to distrust the fly shop reports as they are always bullish in an effort to attract front range fishermen and their wallets. I’m sure they are truthful in stating that caddis are present, but the density of the hatch and precise location are left to one’s imagination.
I picked Danny up at 8AM on Thursday, and he added his fishing and camping gear to the Santa Fe. We made the uneventful drive southwest on US 285 and then turned left on CO 291 and passed through Salida. We decided to begin our caddis hatch exploration upstream from Vallie Bridge between Coaldale and Howard. This was near our targeted campground, and it was farther downstream than Salida and, therefore, we felt offered a higher likelihood of stumbling into the center of the hatch progression. As we traveled via US 50 along the river below Salida, we were disappointed to find nearly every pullout occupied with multiple vehicles. Was this really a weekday, and would we find fishing space farther downstream?
We made the turn off and crossed Vallie Bridge and then drove west on the dirt road that paralleled the north shore of the river until we reached the lease parking lot. Two vehicles occupied spaces, but we noticed that the owners were returning from the river. We were pleased to discover that we had our choice of river real estate, at least for the moment. It developed into a rather warm day with temperatures eventually peaking in the high 70’s, so we lathered up with sunscreen and made sure we carried adequate water supplies. I broke out my new Sage One five weight, and together we found a nice path across a dry irrigation ditch and then moved through some willows that opened up at the tail of a long deep pool.
Danny claimed the tail of the long pool while I advanced to the head and set up my nymph rig with an ultra zug bug and bright green caddis pupa. I worked the deep run for fifteen minutes, and then I snagged the bottom in an area that was too deep to approach. I eventually pried my flies loose, but the pent up energy from the whipping lift launched the flies into a large branch in a tree above me. I was unable to reach the limb and resigned myself to a total break off. The tree clung to my split shot and two flies. I sat down and reconfigured my nymphing arrangement, but substituted a prince nymph for the ultra zug bug.
Five casts later I lost track of my position under a tree, and I launched my backhand cast into another tree limb. The result of this error in judgment was the same as the previous stroke of bad luck, and I once again donated a split shot and two flies to mother nature. I was now uttering unspeakable words and exhibiting outward signs of extreme frustration, so I sat down once again and decided to abandon the nymph game and instead converted to a double dry fly strategy. I rarely fish two dries, but I loved the idea of showing the fish a Chernobyl ant and a size 16 olive-brown caddis. The Chernobyl was on fire on Clear Creek and the Big Thompson River, so why wouldn’t it work here? The caddis was a no-brainer since quite a few of the winged creatures were on the willows, and we were on the Arkansas River in search of a caddis hatch.
The ploy worked in short order and a nice chunky 13 inch brown tipped up and slurped in the trailing caddis in a nice run near the bank above the fly thieving trees. My optimism surged as I moved along the bank and popped long prospecting casts to likely trout havens, but alas the success became fleeting.
Danny approached from below and given the lack of action and the warm temperatures, we decided to retreat to the car for lunch. While we ate our small meal, several additional fishermen arrived, and when we returned to our exit point, we discovered that a trio of hopeful anglers usurped our continuation spot. We were not experiencing great success so we circled around them and dropped back to the rivers edge a respectful distance above the other fishermen. I resumed casting the double dry upstream along the bank, and in a twelve foot long and ten foot wide run I enticed a second brown trout to gulp the trailing caddis.
Unfortunately our progress was once again impeded by the presence of another fisherman, so we circled around by climbing a high bank, and then we found a gradual dry wash that enabled us to approach the river’s edge again. We fished some attractive water in this area but then our upstream migration was once again impeded by a large vertical rock wall. The quality of the fishing did not merit continually climbing and descending, so we decided to return to the car and move to another spot.
Upon our return to the car we debated our options. Perhaps moving downstream would put us in the midst of a heavy caddis emergence. On the other hand, I was quite familiar with the quality stretch between Wellsville and Salida, and could attest to the dense population on large brown and rainbow trout. There were no guarantees that we could locate the hatch sweet spot, so we elected to travel west. At a minimum it would be an opportunity to introduce Danny to some quality water, and we could scout it for Friday. There had to be a reason so many fishermen were present in the morning as we traveled east on our trip from Denver.
We drove thirty minutes west on US 50 and parked along the highway high above the river between Wellsville and Salida. It was now around 3PM and some large dark clouds were building in the western sky as we descended the steep bank and crossed to the north side of the river. After a five minute hike down the railroad tracks, we reached the river and resumed fishing. Since we spotted far fewer caddis on the branches and rocks along the river, we abandoned the caddis dry fly approach and converted to dry/dropper fishing.
I began with a Chernobyl ant, ultra zug bug and beadhead hares ear and started prospecting a wide shelf pool. A shelf pool is a place where the main current pushes water to the side creating a steeply tapering trough between the main current and the shoreline. My attitude improved when I foul hooked a brown in the first pool because at least the fish showed interest. I circled around Danny and advanced to the wide riffle at the top of the shelf pool, and here I began drifting my trio of flies along the inside seam. Yikes, the Chernobyl dipped, and I reacted with a swift hook set and instantly felt the weight of a decent fish. I carefully landed a nice chunky brown trout and gently removed the ultra zug bug from its lip.
Next I waded across the riffle, and as the flies dangled downstream in the current a small brown slammed the ultra zug bug. Clearly I was experiencing a dramatic change in fortunes. The sky was now quite overcast and a brisk breeze kicked up from time to time. The weather changed, and it seemed the fish grew more active. I released the small brown and positioned myself in the middle of the riffle so I could effectively reach a nice deep seam where the currents merged below the tip of the island. I made several casts and allowed the flies to drift through the deep slot created by the merging currents, and on the fifth such pass, the foam top fly dipped at the downstream tail of the trough. The weight on the end of my line streaked upstream and then down until I applied side pressure and maneuvered a hefty fifteen inch brown trout into my net. Nice!
Next we moved into the right channel around a small narrow island, and Danny worked the middle and right side while I advanced along the left half of the braid. My dry/dropper combination covered the length of the left side of the north channel, and I landed two additional quality brown trout. In the process of landing the first fish, the bottom fly broke off, so I replaced it with a soft hackle emerger with no bead, and this fly yielded the second brown.
Meanwhile Danny was working through some ill fortune. He managed to land one nice brown, but this was the only fish to find the net out of six opportunities. Two Amy’s ants were left in the lips of fish, and one heavy fighter sawed off Danny’s juju nymph on a large subsurface rock.
We skipped the water above the island and then covered the quality deep pockets and runs before reaching our crossing point. In one sweet spot where two currents merged near the bank, I hooked a hot rainbow, but as I guided the feisty fish toward Danny to net, it performed a quick U-turn and slipped free of my hook. Danny got a good look at the fish and described a rainbow in excess of fifteen inches.
The soft hackle emerger seemed to be irrelevant in the late afternoon, so I swapped it with a LaFontaine dark gray diving caddis. I was anticipating egg laying adult caddis becoming active in the late afternoon and early evening. The ploy worked as I landed a medium sized brown from a run behind a boulder as the wet fly began to swing at the end of the drift. When we reached our crossing point, we decided to call it quits and returned to the car and ultimately to the Vallie Bridge Campground.
After a tasty chicken red curry dinner, Danny spotted some rising fish along the south bank of the river below Vallie Bridge, so he put on his waders and made the crossing. I tagged along and stayed on the bridge to watch his persistent efforts to dupe one of the risers. The fish continued to rise sporadically throughout the twilight period, but the activity seemed to happen in brief waves. Danny rotated through an array of flies until finally trying one of my Chernobyl ants at dusk. I looked away momentarily, but upon hearing some serious thrashing, I whirled around in time to see a fish shake the fly from its lip. Danny was disappointed for a moment, but eventually we both celebrated his ability to actually entice a take on a Chernobyl ant in near darkness.
It was a fitting way to end a strange day on the Arkansas River. We failed to locate the fabled caddis hatch and suffered through a dead period during the middle of the day only to stumble into some decent action on a portion of the river that appeared to be largely devoid of caddis. Danny was frustrated by his inability to land a higher percentage of his hook ups, but he did generate some action. He was haunted by the large brown that sawed him off on a rock, and his goal for Friday became seeking revenge on the elusive Arkansas brown trout in the area we fished on Thursday late afternoon.