Time: 10:00AM – 4:00PM
Location: Fremont – Chafee Line
After a spectacular day on Thursday on the South Platte River, I was very skeptical that Friday could even approach that level of success. Last fall I reviewed historical posts in this blog and determined that my last reasonably successful day on the Arkansas River was three years ago. As I drove from Lake George to Salida on Thursday evening, I reveled in the euphoria from Thursday and contemplated a return trip to the South Platte on Friday.
I checked into the Woodland Motel a bit after six o’clock on Thursday evening, and within a few minutes I walked along the main street, until I reached the Boathouse Cantina. This small purveyor of Mexican fare along the Arkansas River has developed into my favorite dinner haunt each time I spend a night in Salida on one of my fishing excursions. Al Pastor tacos satisfied my appetite, before I returned to the hotel, where I updated my fishing notes to include Thursday’s results.
I concocted the idea of the overnight stay in Salida as a means to eliminate one round trip, since I wanted to visit both the South Platte River and Arkansas River. The weather forecast for Salida projected highs in the upper fifties, and this was much more favorable than the high of forty with afternoon snow that confronted the Rockies season opener in Denver. Jane approved the motel stay, and I woke up Friday morning literally across the street from the Arkansas River, where it flows through town.
I packed a small breakfast consisting of a Greek yogurt cup, a leftover hard boiled Easter egg, and a Nature Valley granola bar; and I quickly consumed the three items in my room before checking out. I missed my morning cup of tea, so I decided to pay Howl Mercantile and Coffee a visit before embarking on my river adventure. It was 8:30 and the air temperature remained on the chilly side, so I took advantage of the free WiFi and sipped my black orange pekoe mug of tea.
By 9:15AM I was on my way to my customary stretch of the Arkansas River below Salida. I was pleased to observe that very few cars were parked in the usual pullouts along the river, and in fact I encountered only one other group of fishermen during my day of fishing. I pulled on my waders and assembled my Sage One five weight, and then I paused to consider my layer options. The thermometer ascended to fifty degrees but strong gusts of wind assaulted my body on a fairly regular basis. I decided to wear my gray fleece cardigan, and I covered it with my raincoat as a windbreaker. I considered my light down coat but opted to forego it based on the assumption, that the temperature would rise throughout the day. On my head I wore my New Zealand billed hat with ear flaps. I also packed my lunch in my backpack in order to avoid a return hike to the car.
The flows at Salida were seasonally low and just below 200 CFS, so this made crossing the wide river at the tail of the pool below my parking space a relatively easy chore. I climbed the north bank and hiked down the railroad tracks to my usual starting point, and here I configured my line with a strike indicator, split shot, an emerald caddis pupa, and a beadhead hares ear nymph. The water in front of me consisted of a nice wide shelf pool that extended thirty feet into the river, where it met a fast center current. I began drifting the nymphs through the shelf pool and extended my casts across the river, until the indicator bobbed along the current seam. On the sixth drift the indicator dipped just as the nymphs began to swing, and I made a quick hook set and felt the jolt of a substantial live fish.
The energized underwater missile streaked downstream and ripped out line until it paused, and I cautiously applied side pressure and regained line. A few more shorter dashes disturbed the pool, but eventually the pink striped combatant grew weary and acquiesced to my invitation to rest in the net. What a start to my day on the Arkansas River! A sixteen inch rainbow displayed the hares ear nymph in its lip, and it created a substantial sag. I removed the hook and snapped a few photos and then allowed the glistening creature to return to its aquatic home.
I checked my flies for debris and once again lobbed some casts to the top of the run, and on the third pass, as I lifted the flies to recast, I felt a tug, and once again I was attached to a hard charging fish. This time the resistance consisted of some sporadic dives, head shakes and rolls; and sure enough a fourteen inch brown trout glided over the rim of my net and took the place of the earlier rainbow. Thirty minutes into my day, and I already netted two spectacular trout from the Arkansas River. Perhaps my apprehension was misplaced.
I was feeling rather optimistic about my prospects on Friday; however, similar beginnings in the recent past lapsed into disappointment. I moved upstream to the next deep run and current seam brimming with newfound confidence, but my optimism was misplaced in the quality water just below a long slender island. Normally I devote considerable attention to the small right braid on the north side of the island, but the indicator and split shot were not the appropriate rig for the clear channel at the early spring low flows that were present. I skipped around the secondary branch of the river and moved beyond the top of the island in search of some deeper channels among the wide shallow riffle section.
A father and two sons were positioned across from me thirty yards above the tip of the island, and the two boys were casting with their spinning rods toward the middle of the river. The oldest boy was across from me at my starting point at ten o’clock, and he witnessed my efforts to land the initial rainbow trout. He recognized me and waved hello, and I returned the greeting. In a small relatively marginal pocket above the island and below the family, I hooked and landed a twelve inch brown trout, and then I moved thirty yards upstream to a spot, where the main current rushed through the center of the river and created some nice deep troughs along the north side. Perhaps the young man could bring me luck similar to the earlier encounter.
I began lobbing casts upstream so that the indicator drifted tight to the seam, and on the fifth pass the indicator paused, and I lifted the five weight and felt significant weight. The victim of the hook impalement immediately shot downstream with the current, and just as I prepared to follow, it made a sudden stop and circled below me in the slack water. It made some dives and doggedly thwarted my attempts to gain control, but eventually I lifted its head from the water and steered the fifteen inch brown trout into my net. Once again the hares ear nymph was the food of choice, and I silently celebrated a great start to April 6. The younger of the two boys glanced upstream and observed my bent rod, and I secretly hoped they would migrate upstream with me to bring additional good fortune my way.
I achieved a four fish day, and it was noon, so I found a nice grassy spot on the north bank facing the sun and paused to devour my lunch. The rays of the sun continued to warm the air, but gray clouds were visible in the western sky, and the frequency and velocity of the wind notched up to another level. I pondered the afternoon, and concluded that the conditions were building toward a blue winged olive hatch. In case the BWO nymphs became active and attracted the attention of the river dwellers, I reconfigured my nymph alignment and placed the hares ear in the upper position and replaced the caddis pupa with a sparkle wing RS2. I tied the sparkle wings this winter with times such as this clearly in mind, so I leaped at this opportunity to take advantage of my tying efforts.
I methodically worked my way up the river and searched out all the slots, runs, and troughs with above average depth and reduced current velocity, and I probed each such area with the nymph combination. Along the way I experienced two momentary connections, but these fish managed to shed the hook after three second downstream dashes. I suspected that they grabbed the small size 20 sparkle wing, since small hooks provide reduced hook holding capability.
After thirty minutes of utilizing the approach described above, I encountered a nice section along the right bank, where the river tumbled between several large exposed rocks. The current break created some nice plunge holes just below the boulders, and below that some deep slack water troughs existed between spots where the various faster currents merged. This location proved to be a trout haven, and I landed two thirteen inch brown trout along with a magnificent fifteen inch rainbow from the area. The two browns snatched the sparkle wing RS2 on the lift and swing, while the rainbow latched on to the hares ear in the frothy plunge pool at the top of the run.
The fishing effort was significant on Friday due to constant wading in the current and casting the heavy nymph rig into the relentless wind, but the endeavor was producing solid results. The fish count was climbing, but the more satisfying outcome was the size of the trout, as all except one measured in the thirteen to sixteen inch range. I was thankful for my success at this point, and I remained optimistic that some blue winged olive hatching activity might lie ahead.
The next section of the river was the long slow moving pool below where the Santa Fe was parked. I climbed up on the north bank and slowly strode along, while I carefully scrutinized the pool next to me. If olives were hatching, they would be most obvious in this type of water. Unfortunately I did not spy any small mayflies, so I accelerated my pace a bit, and marched to the head of the long pool, where faster water bounced over a rocky bottom to create a wide relatively deep riffle. I waded on to a shallow sand bar fifteen feet from the bank and began to fan casts of increasing length across the riffle, and as I executed this approach, I searched for seams where the current slowed somewhat. Once I completed a set of searching casts, I carefully took three or four steps upstream and replicated the up and across casts and swings. After three cycles of this process, I lobbed the nymphs into a barely perceptible trough, and I was surprised to see the indicator dive. I swept the rod to the left and jolted a lightning bolt into action. The muscular attachment on the other end of my line reacted with several hot runs, and I prayed that the combatant chose the larger hares ear fly.
After three minutes of activity including multiple streaks and my frantic attempts to maintain tension by rapidly reeling or stripping line, the fifteen inch rainbow slid into my net. Whew! the miniscule sparkle wing RS2 was embedded in the thin membrane next to the lip, and I felt very fortunate to hang on long enough to land and photograph this beauty.
As I inspected my flies before resuming the quest for more trout, I noticed several baetis adults, as they rode the current and tumbled along at the mercy of the sudden blasts of air. The long anticipated hatch was beginning, but I was not observing any surface feeding. I concluded that the wind was sweeping the adults into the air before hungry fish could react. Should I continue with the deep nymphing approach, or should I reverse tactics and switch to a small dry fly? I envisioned the trout feeding in the small more protected north braid near my morning starting point, and I considered hiking downstream on the railroad tracks to check out the situation.
On the other hand I just landed a splendid rainbow on the sparkle wing RS2, and I was convinced that the two previous temporary hook ups responded to the BWO nymph as well. It was 2:00PM, and I decided to persist upstream. I continued working the nymphs in the likely locations, but the effort was not rewarded. From time to time I spotted wind blown adults, but it seemed that more visible mayflies translated to reduced interest in my nymphs. At 2:30 I decided to initiate plan B; that is, I climbed the bank to the railroad tracks and hiked downstream to the small channel on the north side of the island, that I skipped in the morning.
My heart pounded as I waded to the bottom tip of the island and reached a position, where I could scan the lower pool. Were my eyes deceiving me? A ring materialized along the bubble line, where the long current flowed through the center of the channel. As I continued to scan the surface, another rise form appeared and then another and another. I shifted my gaze to the slow slack water above me on the left side, and several concentric rings slowly spread out from a center point. My hands trembled, as I quickly snipped off the nymphs, pried apart the split shot crimp, and removed the strike indicator. Should I try a CDC BWO or one of the Klinkhammer style emergers that duped sixteen trout on the South Platte River? For some reason I chose a size 22 CDC olive, and I impatiently manipulated my cold fingers to attach the tiny BWO imitation.
By now I could see a steady series of sailboat-like gray winged mayflies on the surface, and I paused to once again observe the pool. I decided to target the three or four fish feeding along the bubble line first, but the intermittent wind made executing a nice slack cast nearly impossible. After five unsuccessful attempts I averted my attention to the slow moving side pool above me. Reaching the site of the earlier rise required a long cast, but during a lull in the wind I made the attempt. The first try fell short, but the next one shot five feet farther upstream, and after a one foot drift a bulge appeared under the fly. It is hard to describe the feeling of elation that ensues upon completing all the correct steps to fool a large trout on a tiny dry fly, but that was what I felt at that moment. I tightened the line and struck firmly, and a torpedo immediately dashed upstream and then reversed to a point halfway between me and the scene of the original disruption of the trout’s feeding rhythm. I applied pressure and eventually coaxed a fifteen inch brown trout into my net. I was in fly fishing euphoria.
But I was not done. The mayflies continued to emerge, and the fish continued to sip in apparent gluttony. Ten minutes elapsed with no additional action, as I once again attempted to battle the wind in order to execute a decent presentation to the bubble line feeders. Again I glanced to the left and noted a slow water sipper. Could I repeat my earlier success? I shot a cast upstream and fluttered the CDC tuft down, and history repeated itself. A mirror image brown trout inhaled the BWO fraud and displayed valiant escape tactics, but I was equal to the challenge and slid my net beneath another prize Arkansas River brown trout.
I snapped several obligatory photos and dried the size 22 olive and once again surveyed the scene. Despite two tussles with cantankerous brown trout, the current seam feeders continued their ravenous feeding. Surely I could fool one of these chomping maniacs. The closest fish to me in the current seemed to be quite nice, and it also appeared to be the most aggressive, as it lurched to the surface in rapid fire fashion to grab floating morsels. I made four casts and allowed the fly to skip down the center of the run with no response, but on the fifth attempt the target fish sipped in my offering. It almost seemed like that fish instantly recognized the error of its ways, but my swift reaction did not allow it to undo its mistake.
The fish leaped and streaked up and down the pool, and I quickly realized that it was a high spirited rainbow. I held tight, maintained tension and rode out the strong attempts to escape, until I dipped the net beneath a gorgeous shimmering rainbow. What a thrill! Two fifteen inch brown trout and now a similar size rainbow in a shallow clear pool on a tiny dry fly certainly elevated my day from nice to exceptional. I recorded a brief video and released the prize, and then I resumed my quest for more Arkansas River trout.
The battle with the rainbow put down all the other bubble line feeders, so I turned my attention to the very top of the pool. A sporadic riser caught my attention, but after ten casts I was unable to create a reaction. I could not follow the tiny olive in the faster swirling current, so I decided to experiment with another tactic. I tied a peacock hippy stomper to my line and then extended eighteen inches of tippet from the bend and attached the sparkle wing RS2. I drifted this combination over the earlier riser at least ten times, but once again the fish paid no attention, and in fact it stopped feeding. I moved on to two more quality pockets, but the dry/dropper technique was not effective, and I now pondered my next step.
It was 3:30 and the clouds thickened while the temperature dropped ten degrees. My raincoat shell was a windbreaker but provided minimal insulation from the biting wind, so I decided to amble upstream to my crossing point and then check out the long pool from the south bank. If olives continued to emerge, they would surely be visible in the pool from the high rock overlook. When I reached the rock ledge below my car, I paused and observed, and sure enough a few sporadic risers appeared toward the middle of the river. I concluded that I could not effectively present my flies to these feeders, so I turned my attention upriver closer to my bank. After a minute or two several subtle bulges revealed themselves, so I climbed down to the rocks across from the observed rises. The water was faster here, so I exchanged the CDC BWO for the Klinkhammer version, and then I scattered some casts over the rise locations. Alas my fly was lost in the waves, and I never spotted another surface take to react to, and my fingers began to curl into stiff numb hooks.
I called it quits and climbed back to the car, where I shed my waders and stowed my rod and reel as rapidly as possible. The sky was darkening, the wind was blasting and the temperature was plunging; and all I could think about was the warmth of the seat heater.
Once I warmed up on my drive back to Denver, I remained in a state of fly fishing euphoria. Eleven fish is not a high fish count, but the quality of the landed trout was outstanding. Eight very strong trout grabbed my nymphs between ten o’clock and three o’clock, before the pinnacle of fly fishing unfolded. I fooled three wary surface feeding Arkansas bruisers in a shallow slow moving clear pool. What a conclusion to a fabulous day! The Arkansas River is back on my list of favorite destinations in Colorado.
Fish Landed: 11