Time: 11:00AM – 4:00PM
Location: From bridge on dirt road two miles south of Hayden Meadows parking lot upstream for one mile.
Unlike most of my fishing ventures, I was totally unfamiliar with the Hayden Meadows area. I drove by it several times, and I recalled a parking area on the northern edge of the area by a lake, but I also remembered passing other sections with access downstream. As I drove south of US 24, I crossed the river and noted that it was only slightly larger than the Eagle River at normal summer flows. On the left appeared the aforementioned lake and a parking area occupied by quite a few vehicles, which no doubt belonged to the throngs of fishermen lining the banks of the small lake. Stopping among this crowd did not appeal to me, so I continued south for two miles, and here I spotted a brown sign that pointed to More Arkansas River Ranch.
I turned left on a dirt road, and after .2 miles I crossed the river and parked in a small lot on the right side of the road. A Jeep Wrangler was already in place, and the related fisherman wearing a floppy hat with a neck protector was in motion toward the river. It appeared that fishing access was available both upstream and downstream from the bridge, and I was curious which way the other fisherman would choose. Since I drove from Halfmoon with my waders on, and my rod remained strung, it did not take long before I was eagerly on my way to the bridge.
When I reached the bridge, I glanced downstream and spotted the young owner of the Jeep Wrangler waded into a long riffle. This was not water I would have chosen to start my day, but perhaps he had inside information. Rather than play tag with another fisherman, I elected to fish upstream. The area was absolutely breathtaking. Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive loomed to the west, and the river was fifty feet wide and crystal clear. Given my lack of familiarity, I guessed that the flows remained a bit high compared to average summer levels. The banks were lined with potentilla and willows, and the cold current meandered through the high elevation landscape.
Just above the bridge a large deep eddy appeared where a small side channel merged with the main branch of the river. This is where I chose to begin. A size 14 gray stimulator remained on my line from Halfmoon, so why not test it on these new waters? I carefully stepped down the bank and lobbed a cast to the middle of the calm space in the middle of the eddy, but it sat there unmolested for what seemed like minutes. I picked up the fly and dropped it closer to the bank so that it drifted upstream toward the northern edge of the eddy, and suddenly a fish rose and refused my fly! I was actually pleased to see a refusal after a morning of fruitless casting.
I made a couple more drifts to the area of the rise, but as is usually the case, the fish was averse to expending more energy on a recently detected fraud. I shifted my attention to other sections of the eddy, but the stimulator was treated like a cottonwood fuzzy and completely ignored. Before vacating the area, I decided to feed my fly to the scene of the earlier refusal, and smack! A fourteen inch brown trout shocked me by aggressively chomping on the gray hackled floater. A brief battle ensued, and I managed to net the buttery yellow combatant and position it for some photographs. It was a great start to my initial visit to Arkansas River Ranch/Hayden Meadows.
Between 11 and 11:30 I fished from the bridge along the left bank and managed to land a second smaller brown trout on the stimulator. Several stream improvement structures jutted into the river from the bank, and these created interesting shelf pools and runs. After continuing for fifteen minutes through the attractive areas with no success, I decided to change my approach. I removed the stimulator and attached a size 8 Chernobyl ant, a beadhead hares ear, and a salvation nymph. An abundance of caddis were present on the shrubs that bordered the river, so the hares ear was intended to represent the subsurface form of these aquatic insects. The salvation was present in case pale morning duns made an early afternoon appearance.
By 11:30 a headwind began to gust at ridiculous velocities, and I was struggling to punch the large foam fly and bead-weighted nymphs into the wind using my light Orvis Access. Since I remained reasonably close to the Santa Fe, I followed the path back to the road and then to the parking lot and swapped rods. I chose my Sage four weight since it offered a stiffer backbone with which to chuck the three flies into the gusting wind. Once I returned to my exit point, I fished for another fifteen minutes, and then I found a nice grassy location on the bank and munched my lunch.
In the first hour after lunch I covered quite a distance as the river was wide and shallow and offered very few decent holding spots for fish. I managed to land two additional small brown trout, and then I approached a place where the main current angled toward the far bank and flowed around a couple large boulders. This structure created a nice deep eight foot wide run next to the bank with some dense overhanging brush. I drifted the dry/dropper rig along the current seam closest to me, and the Chernobyl dipped, and I lifted and felt myself connected to a hard fighting fish. The embattled trout raced up and down the pool and then headed downstream quite a distance forcing me to follow. Eventually side pressure brought the fifteen inch salvation chomping brown to my net, and I announced that it may have been the hardest fighting fifteen inch fish I ever landed.
I positioned myself in the same place, and I was surprised to view a second fish rise closer to the bank. Once again I began drifting the three flies through the area, and a second splash occurred near my Chernobyl. Two more passes went unmolested, but the next resulted in a tug, a hook set, and another tough fight. This fish was also a brown trout, and it measured fourteen inches and possessed gorgeous deep coloration.
As I turned to wade upstream to the next sweet spot, I noticed two large olive-gray colored mayflies, as they slowly fluttered up from the river. Could the second brown that I just landed have been chowing down on green drakes? I assumed that the large flies were green drakes, but subsequently I read an ArkAnglers Hayden Meadows fishing report that mentioned gray drakes. At the time, however, I pinched myself to make sure I was not dreaming. I never expected to encounter the green drake tour on Tuesday, but there was no mistaking the large olive-gray mayflies in the air in front of me. What a serendipitous turn of events!
I moved on a diagonal to the next attractive area along the left bank. Here a strong current flowed rapidly tight to the bank and then fanned out into a deep run and then a wide, although short, pool. The right side of the river was a broad slow moving shelf pool, and as I evaluated my approach, I observed a rise in the pool area and another at the tailout of the run. I made some token casts with the dry/dropper flies hoping that perhaps the fish would grab the trailing salvation or hares ear, but they were having none of it, so I removed the threesome and knotted a size 12 parachute green drake to my line. On the first drift the fish at the tailout rose and turned away at the last second. How could this fish refuse my expertly tied green drake?
I paused and scanned the water and spotted another drake (gray, although I believed it to be green), as it thrashed on the surface in an effort to become airborne. Upon closer study it appeared to be a size smaller, so I examined my fly box and selected one of the Harrop deer hair green drakes that I tied during the winter. I cast this beauty to the site of the refusal, but no response was forthcoming. Next I shot some long casts to the pooled area, and this prompted another refusal. What now? I opened the fly box and chose a size 14 green drake comparadun and put this creation on trial, but it could not even entice a refusal. I decided to return to the deer hair drake since it resembled the active tumbling image of an emerger, and I also decided to abandon the jaded denizens of the run in front of me. However before moving on, I launched a long cast between gusts of wind to the inner edge of the current seam five feet out from the bank. The drake drifted only a foot before it was molested by a thirteen inch brown trout, and I celebrated landing my first fish on the newly created Harrop deer hair drake.
Over the next hour I proceeded upstream and prospected with the size twelve green drake and managed to land two additional 12-13 inch brown trout. Pound for pound the Hayden Meadows fish fight as hard as any I have been privileged to hook. By 1:30 I ceased observing gray drakes, but the structure of the river improved dramatically. Perhaps I was now in the area that received stream improvements, but regardless of the reason, many more attractive places presented themselves, and it seemed the fish density improved. I began to experience a greater number of refusals to the size 12 green drake, so I found a size 12 stimulator in my box that was shorter, and I put it on my line. This fly failed to create looks or refusals, so I downsized to the size 14 gray stimulator that I began with.
After reading that gray drakes are present at Hayden Meadows, I now realize why the gray stimulator proved to be a successful fly choice. Although it did not have the classic mayfly upwing, it was close in size and color to the natural gray drakes present on the river. Between 1:30 and 4:00 I covered a substantial amount of water and landed five additional brown trout. Several of the middle to late afternoon catches were spunky thirteen inch beauties. I also discovered that the fish were spread out in fairly fast riffles of moderate depth, and several fish rose to smash the stimulator in this type of water. Normally brown trout prefer slower moving water with depth along the bank or next to significant structure, but that was not the case on Tuesday.
At 3:30 I reached a place where the main river merged with a small side channel, and a wide shallow riffle ran just below the merge point. I flipped the stimulator so it drifted along the strong current seam closest to me, and suddenly there was a swirl. I reacted with a swift hook set, and I was shocked to find myself connected to a fifteen inch brown trout. My surprised state stemmed from the size of the fish relative to the shallow depth of the water. At the top of the riffle another fish swirled but refused the stimulator, so I tried a size 16 and then 18 caddis but the trout was apparently wise to my presence. A period of high wind caused me to make a last ditch effort with a Jake’s gulp beetle, but that also failed, so I reeled up my line and called it quits.
As stated earlier I was unfamiliar with the area, and I now faced the lack of an exit strategy. As I drove south on US 24 I noted that a sturdy barbed wire fence separated the area I was fishing from the railroad tracks and highway. I did not know where I was in relation to the northern parking area, but I decided to head north anyway. In order to better acclimate myself with my position, I cut left toward the fence, and after .2 miles I spotted a gate with a sign. The sign was facing the highway, so I decided to approach and examine. In a stroke of good fortune, I discovered that the gate was not padlocked, and I simply unhooked the linked chain and unraveled it in order to swing it open and allow easy passage. The sign stated that access was only at designated entry points, but it was unclear if this was one of them. At any rate I wrapped the chain and hooked it once again, and proceeded to hike approximately one mile along the narrow shoulder of the busy highway until I was safely back at my car.
What a day! I did indeed salvage a fun day after a frustrating start. The Hayden Meadows/Arkansas River Ranch proved to be interesting water with very nice brown trout. The gray drake hatch and abundant caddis proved to be a nice bonus, and I was stimulated by the task of solving the riddle of catching trout in a new environment. I will definitely return to Hayden Meadows again in the near future.
Fish Landed: 14