Time: 10:30AM – 4:00PM
Location: Big Horn Sheep Canyon below Stockyard Bridge
My inability to locate the famed Arkansas River caddis hatch in recent years has been well documented in this blog. Yet a few wildly successful interactions with blizzard hatches in 2010 tease me back for more. I attended a presentation by Greg Felt of ArkAnglers at the Sportsmen’s Exposition in January, and he informed the audience that a high water season in 2008 practically wiped out a generation of the caddis population, but better water management policies brought it back to blizzard status in recent years.
With this background I attempted to decide on a destination for Friday, May 3. I vacillated by the hour between the South Platte River in Eleven Mile Canyon and the Arkansas River. The Eleven Mile water chart displayed steady flows of 92 CFS, and I visited the canyon tailwater on April 26 with decent success. This choice was a fairly low risk option.
The Arkansas River DWR data presented flows in the 750 CFS range, and this fact alone alarmed me after a successful day of fly fishing on April 23 at 444 CFS. Surely the root cause of the elevated flows was early snow melt from the above average accumulations over the past winter. I learned over my many years of fishing in Colorado that a shot of cold run off quickly reduces the metabolism of the resident trout. Another red flag was the emphasis that the fly shop report placed on visibility. If clarity were not an issue, it would not be mentioned; however, ArkAnglers emphasized that visibility existed up to three feet. Offsetting these cautionary signs was a bold notation that guides encountered fairly dense caddis emergences in the area below Salida. There it is was again. The lure of another epic caddis hatch experience. In my mind I debated the low risk option of consistent flows and predictable hatches on the South Platte River versus high flows, murky water, and the allure of a rare confrontation with the fabled Arkansas River caddis hatch. I concluded that the steady flows in Eleven Mile Canyon would continue for a few more weeks and gambled on the possibility of a mega hatch on the Arkansas River. What could be the outcome of this daring move?
I departed Denver by 7AM and arrived at a wide pullout west of the Chaffee-Fremont County line by 10AM. The temperature was around fifty degrees, so I slid into a light fleece and pulled on my new Hodgman breathable waders. I strung my Sage four weight and ambled east along the shoulder of US 50 for .4 miles, whereupon I scrambled down a rough rocky path to the river. Another angler occupied the place, where I planned to begin my day, so I retreated to a point fifty yards upstream.
I began Friday with a tan pool toy hopper, an iron sally and a bright green go2 caddis pupa, but after some focused prospecting for thirty minutes I found no evidence of the presence of trout in the Arkansas River. The high stained flows forced me to limit my casts to the possible bank side holding spots, but even this targeted fishing yielded no response. I adjusted my offerings at 11AM to the bright green go2 caddis pupa as the top fly and knotted a sparkle wing RS2 to my line at the end position. These flies occupied my line, until I broke for lunch at noon. I was quite disappointed with my lack of results, but I consoled myself with the expectation that a blue winged olive hatch would likely place the trout in a hungry mood.
After I consumed my sandwich, carrots and yogurt on a small sandy beach, I reconfigured my approach with a thingamabobber and split shot, and I retained the caddis pupa and RS2 flies. In the next two hours I finally achieved a small level of success, as I netted three brown trout in the twelve inch range. One grabbed the bright green caddis and two snatched the RS2. The takes came from riffles of moderate depth, and movement in the form of a lift or swing seemed to be the common thread that yielded results. In addition to the landed fish, I experienced five temporary connections. Three were simply the feeling of weight for a split second, but two were actually attached long enough for me to see the outline of a brown trout.
During this time period a sparse emergence of blue winged olives was in progress, although I never observed surface feeding from the Arkansas River trout. At 2:30PM I connected with a fourth trout along the bank within .1 mile of the car, and given the slow catch rate I decided to snap a photo. I opened my waterproof camera carrying case, and I was stunned to discover that my camera was absent. Perspiration began to ooze from my arm pits, as I went into panic mode and attempted to remember the whereabouts of the camera. I searched the area near me feet in case the case was not secured properly and fell out, as I opened the case, while the fish thrashed in the net, but it was not visible. Next I searched the area inside my waders in case it fell within, while I waded and moved. Again my search efforts were thwarted by the lack of a camera. I now pondered my afternoon of fishing, and I remembered removing the camera to take a photo, and then I placed it on a rock, while I released the fish and reattached my net. I concluded that the camera was on a rock along the shoreline somewhere between my lunch spot and my present position.
I clambered up a steep rocky bank and over some prickly vegetation, until I reached the highway, and I quickly strode along the shoulder, until I was perched high above the spot, that I remembered as my lunch stop. I spotted a small sandy area among streamside shrubs with red branches, and this agreed with my recollection. I carefully scrambled down the rocks and parted the leafless branches, and immediately spotted my Olympus Tough camera in the sand next to a rock. What a relief to grip it and place it back in its waterproof container!
With a crisis averted I climbed the steep embankment and returned to the spot, where I discovered my lost camera. I progressed upstream along the left bank, and I endured a long period of inactivity, so I once again reverted to the dry/dropper approach. During my previous trip I enjoyed decent success in the afternoon on the hippy stomper, so the foam attractor with a peacock body became the lead fly with the caddis pupa and a soft hackle emerger as the subsurface combination.
Another angler occupied a large pool next a huge rock, so I circled around and then encountered another fisherman in an attractive run and pool a bit farther upstream. I gave the second gentleman space and cut back to the river next to a very appealing shelf pool. This area offered a nice seam along the main current as well as a slow moving shelf pool. As I observed, the wind kicked up, and an increasingly abundant quantity of small caddis began to tumble along the surface of the river. I watched impatiently with the expectation that the surface would explode with frenzied feeding, but other than two random rises, it never materialized.
I decided to persist with the dry/dropper rig until risers became commonplace, but it never happened. I was surprised to see another angler across from me, and he landed three decent trout between three and four o’clock, but I was unable to determine his method. After a significant number of fruitless casts, I finally connected with a thirteen inch brown trout that snatched the caddis pupa, as it drifted along the main current seam, but that would prove to me the extent of my success during the heavy caddis activity of Friday, May 3.
After thirty minutes of frustration I switched my strategy and migrated to a single size 16 olive-brown deer hair caddis dry fly. I placed casts in the vicinity of the two random rises that I observed early on, but this approach quickly struck me as futile. Massive quantities of active tumbling natural caddis, made my dead drifting imitation seem lifeless and uninteresting. The trout apparently agreed, and the caddis dry went unmolested.
In a last ditch effort to capitalize on the long sought after caddis hatch, I returned to a nymphing approach. The lack of surface action convinced me, that the trout were keyed on to subsurface pupa and egg laying females. I quickly configured once again with an indicator, split shot, prince nymph and bright green sparkle caddis pupa. I lobbed some casts and imparted action via bad mends and lifting movements, but before I could assess the effectiveness of my method, I snagged a branch. The obstruction holding my hook hostage was located in fast deep water, so I defaulted to a direct tug on the line and broke off both flies. I quickly replaced the lost nymphs with an ultra zug bug and another bright green caddis, and within minutes I was once again connected to a branch or rock in an area that left me no choice except to break off a second time. In this case the split shot was contributed to the stream bottom along with two flies.
I was now in an exasperated state, and it was 3:45PM and I was clueless regarding how to capitalize on the best caddis hatch in recent history on the Arkansas River. I reeled up my line and climbed to the shoulder of the highway and hoofed it back to the Santa Fe.
Be careful what you wish for. For years I searched for the caddis hatch of my dreams, and I found it on Friday, yet I was unable to take advantage. I landed five brown trout in the twelve inch size range, and connected with another five along with two foul hooked fish. The action was very slow, and I covered a lot of river mileage which encompassed quite a bit of strenuous rock climbing. The low point and highlight of my day were losing and then recovering my digital camera. I am at a loss to explain the lack of surface feeding fish during a spectacular hatch. Another week of fishing the Arkansas River is probably available before true run off commences, but I am uncertain whether I will gamble another long drive and day on the large freestone river.
Fish Landed: 5