Arkansas River – 07/22/2019

Time: 12:00PM – 4:30PM

Location: Pridemore Lease and tunnel area above Buena Vista

Arkansas River 07/22/2019 Photo Album

I enjoyed success on the Yampa River during the previous week, and I was now in hot pursuit of the temporary window of opportunity on Colorado freestone rivers, when the run off is high, but the water remains clear and cold. Under these conditions the trout bunch up in soft water areas along the bank, and they are extremely hungry after surviving weeks of high velocity thrashing current.

Originally I planned to visit the Eagle River on Monday and Tuesday and then drive south for a day on the Arkansas River on Wednesday. However, when I checked the flows on Monday morning, I noted that the Eagle River remained at 1360 CFS, and I typically desire an upper velocity of 1000 CFS. In addition I suspected a spike on Monday morning that was indicative of a rainstorm, and the area that I targeted was downstream from a tributary that muddies quickly.

The Arkansas River on the other hand was dropping nicely, and the last reading registered flows just below 2000 CFS. I typically look for 1500 CFS, but the Arkansas riverbed is quite large, and I was confident that 2000 CFS was manageable for edge fishing. A narrow spike also appeared on the Arkansas River, Salida DWR graph, but I discounted it under the assumption that it was brief, and could not significantly impact the conditions on a large river such as the Arkansas. The ArkAnglers report shed no light on the situation, as it was not updated since Sunday, a time period prior to the spike. I had all my camping gear packed, so I rolled the dice, reversed my sequence of stops, and headed to the Arkansas River. I planned to camp at the Vallie Bridge Campgroud, one of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area locations, and less popular due to the lack of trees.

High and Dirty Did Not Equal Good Fishing

A 2.5 hour drive placed me at the bridge where CO 291 crossed the river, and I suited up with my new but patched waders and rigged my Sage five weight, since I was facing big water. During my drive I crossed the Arkansas River at Fishermen’s Bridge, and it was crystal clear; however, I also passed over Chalk Creek, and it displayed the color of a cup of coffee with two teaspoons of milk. At the time I convinced myself that Chalk Creek represented a small percentage of the much larger flows of the main river, and the water would be mostly diluted before it cascaded downstream to my chosen location to fish.

This turned out to be faulty analysis, and when I looked at the river at the Pridemore Lease, it was a light brown color. My heart sank, and I considered reversing to the Buena Vista area, but I ate my lunch and reasoned that black flies for contrast and fishing along the edge with one foot of visibility could still attract fish. My original plan assumed edge fishing anyway, so the reduced visibility served as a visual reminder.

My reasoning translated to wishful thinking. I walked along the upper rim of the canyon, and after .4 mile found a marginally reasonable place to descend. My snake radar was on high alert mode after several previous encounters in this area.

One of Two Small Brown Trout from the Murky Arkansas River

I spent the next 2.5 hours working the extreme edge of the river with a three fly dry/dropper set up. Initially the top fly was a size 8 Chernobyl ant, but eventually it was replaced with a more visible and buoyant yellow fat Albert. For dropper flies I cycled through a black woolly bugger, slumpbuster, peacock stonefly, hares ear nymph, red copper john, and a salvation nymph. I landed two seven inch brown trout, and I hooked and played a thirteen inch brown as well. Unfortunately the larger fish twisted free after a brief connection, and the pent up energy of the rod whipped the three flies into a tree branch. Not only did the fish escape, but it put my flies at risk as well. Luckily I climbed around the tree trunk to the uphill side, and I bashed the dead limb with my wading staff causing it to fall to the rocks next to the river, and this fortuitous outcome enabled me to recover all my flies! I neglected to mention that I also acquired three free flies that were snapped off in a streamside bush. One was an amber body chubby Chernobyl, another was a hares ear, and the third was a slender quill body nymph.


After I recovered my flies, I worked quickly, until I was just below the bridge. This period was characterized by futile casting, and represented my nadir of confidence, so I climbed the steep bank and returned to the car. What should I do now? My plans revolved around two days and two nights on the Arkansas, while I waited for the Eagle to clear and drop. My planned camping destination was Vallie Bridge, and it was miles downstream from Salida. The water from Chalk Creek and downstream appeared to be very murky, and this led to difficult fishing. I remembered crossing Fishermen’s Bridge, and the river at that point was very clear. I decided to make one last effort to fish the Arkansas River before returning to Denver, if the results did not improve.

I drove north on US 285 to US 24, and then I turned right in Buena Vista and made a left on Colorado Avenue. I was headed to the tunnel area, where I fished successfully on one previous occasion. After a six mile drive on a mostly packed dirt road, I arrived at the first tunnel and turned into a wide pullout. My waders remained on, and my rod was strung, so in not time I was ambling downriver on the railroad tracks.

First Success After a Move Upriver

After .2 mile I cut down to the river, and I began probing the nice runs and pockets of moderate depth with a peacock stonefly and hares ear, and in a short amount of time I hooked and landed two twelve inch brown trout. How could this be, and why did I wait so long to change locations? Patience can sometimes be a detriment to fly fishing success.

Having Fun

The peacock nymph was not producing results, so I replaced it with a salvation nymph and kept the hares ear in the end position. Between 3PM and 4:30PM I added six more fish to my netted total, and this allowed me to reach ten on the day. I was very pleased and shocked by this dramatic reversal of fortunes. Fishing in clear water raised my confidence and focus, and landed fish were the result. Of course the trout were relatively small, but regular action was welcome at this stage of the day.

This uptick in success made me want to follow through with my plans to camp. But where? I was so certain that I would camp at Vallie Bridge, that I did not bring a map or book with campgrounds marked or listed. I returned to Buena Vista and attempted to find the Visitor Center, but it apparently moved. I finally pulled into a vacant parking lot along US 24 and called Jane. She used her iPad to go online and found a nearby Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Campground just north of Buena Vista called Railroad Bridge. Amazingly it was four miles north of the tunnels area, where I hoped to fish on Tuesday.

Wildflowers at the Campground

I crossed my fingers, as I pulled into the campground, and fortunately four or five vacant sites greeted me. I thought I was home free, but that was not the case. Little blue slips in the campsite post stated that camping was by reservation only. I was confused, so I approached some neighboring campers, and they told me that they reserved number four, but discovered it was too small for their three tents and moved across the lane. They were, therefore, certain that number four was available. They also mentioned that the campground host had temporarily left, but she was expected to return.

Collegiate Peaks Views Were a Bonus

I moved my car from site six to site four, and I was pondering my next move. If I set up the tent, and then the host told me it was reserved by others, I was in trouble. Finally my new friends suggested that I reserve an open spot. I was accustomed to a system that required reserving four days ahead, but I decided to check the web site. Sure enough all state park campgrounds required online reserving, but the waiting period was eliminated. It was not easy, but I managed to create an account, reserve a site, and charge my credit card from my phone at the Railroad Bridge Campground. Whew! What a day!

Fish Landed: 10

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