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Fly Fishing the Arkansas

  • Post category:Adventures

This adventure goes the distance. Far and away from our Chesapeake origins and westward to mighty Colorado, where the front range meets the Rockies and the canyons in between. It’s an explorer’s paradise, the thrill-seeker’s proving ground, and a fly fisherman’s dream. And angling dreams can come true in the confluence of multi-class rapids and the trout-heavy Arkansas River, whose headwaters are born in the Centennial State near the town of Leadville. We deem our recent trip to this river a success based on a number of factors: the gorgeous landscape and scenery, a quick study in fly fishing, thorough guiding, decent weather, and proven results. We caught fish!

The trout species we encountered included rainbow, cutthroat, and cutbow. Though we didn’t hook into big browns or brookies, they are present throughout this watershed, which provides safe but somewhat challenging terrain and waters to test one’s fly skills. It was actually a great proving ground for the skills we brought back home to fly fish Maryland waters.

As a tributary of the Mighty Mississippi River, the Arkansas generally flows southeast from middle Colorado, through Kansas, then Oklahoma, and finally Arkansas itself, where it meets the Mississippi. In the portion of Colorado we’d be fishing, near the town of Salida, the river is generally thin (meaning not much wider than 30–40 yards) and skinny water (three to four feet average depth), constantly flowing, and marked with graduating degrees of structure and rapids through three fishable basins (Upper, Middle, Lower). This 102-mile stretch of river was added to the list of Gold Medal Trout Waters in Colorado in 2014—a designation that ranks it among the elite trout fisheries in Colorado. To get to the Middle Basin, we flew into Denver and headed south to Colorado Springs (our home base to visit family), followed by a two-hour drive through the canyons, passing Canon City, and finally arriving to tiny Salida, where we met with our guide service ArkAnglers Arkansas River Fly Shop.

Ark Anglers Fly Shop in Salida, Colorado, boasts an impressive amount of fly and gear.

East Coast anglers flying to Colorado are fortunate to have a number of airlines and hubs from which to fly direct to Denver International Airport (DIA). We chose a direct Southwest Airlines flight departing Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI); just 3.5 hours in the air. If you’re intending to drive from DIA directly southwest to Salida, you’re looking at about 3 scenic hours on the road. All very reasonable for reaching this renowned stretch of water.

Arrangements for this guided trip were made about two months ahead of time and it’s recommended you book early. Though this is technically a year-round fishery, peak season runs late-Spring through Fall. Summer is defined as the period between the late-May run-off and the Fall flows, when water temperatures begin to cool once again. According to Greg Felt of ArkAnglers and a frequent contributor to Central Colorado Fishing Guide, once the Arkansas’ spring flows begin to subside by late-June, summer provides some of the most consistent and enjoyable dry fly fishing of the year. And this is exactly what we’d try our hand at…and have success.

After suiting up in waders with neoprene booties and hefty wading boots, we set course for a small impoundment off the Arkansas proper that once served as a hydroelectric generator more than a generation ago. Now off grid, this little lake, with its gentle ripple of current, clear water, and wide open space along the bank, makes for the perfect locale to learn and perfect fly casting…and catch a few fish while you’re at. Our guide, Cody Caudill, set up our rods, demonstrated the techniques to employ, and helped smooth out any mistakes he observed us making on our casts. It didn’t take long to feel good about the mechanics of fly casting and soon enough we were tying on a dry fly and dropper combo to the end of the line, casting into the current, and getting takes (mostly on the wet nymph fly tied below) by rainbows, cutthroat, and even a cutbow trout. When learning the art of fly fishing it certainly helps to catch fish as well!

Fishing an impoundment loaded with trout was a great introduction to fly fishing and acclimating to the gear.

Having spent the morning hours perfecting our casting to the best of our abilities, we graduated to the Arkansas River and would enjoy an afternoon wading into swifter flows and much more varied terrain. The challenging river is where physical prowess and mental acuity are needed to navigate the water, maintain proper form, and deliver the flies where they need to go to catch fish. It was a difficult proposition given we hadn’t waded these waters before. Nonetheless, if you love fishing as much as I do, then you likely know that persistence and patience can pay off. These two virtues are often the name of the fishing game. Every serious angler experiences this…knows this to be true…and must humbly practice this balancing act between one’s want for fish on the end of the line and the need to stay course, even when aren’t actively playing along.

This Chubby Chernobyl dry fly got strikes from the first few casts to the last of the day.

Hours spent on the Arkansas improved our skills. No doubt about that. Personally, I felt a new sense of rhythm develop with my casting and the confidence to adjust my presentation without guidance. Fly casting started to feel natural. I’d move about the river, wading from shallow waters to deep, back and forth, up and down—all to cover as much water as possible to find a bite. As the afternoon coursed through the 3 p.m. hour, it felt like our hundreds of casts would come up empty on the day. But, alas, a stocky rainbow hit the wet nymph and I stripped in the nice fish. Two more rainbows would follow in a patch of water with strong flow that we left untouched since first casting there a couple hours earlier upon arrival. I returned to the spot to put my new found casting confidence to the test. Casting into the wind and upstream of the flow was a fun challenge. And the fish hit topwater. Both took the Chubby Chernobyl dry fly and made for the most exciting finish to our day. As fish number three was netted, a steady rain began falling and in the distance we could see dark clouds and the potential for lightning to develop.

The Arkansas River stretches along meadows and valleys between canyons, and the Rockies in the distance.

Slipping the beautiful rainbow trout back into the Arkansas River to swim another day was the final note of what I would deem a successfully guided fly fishing trip. While we only saw a tiny portion of the river, it’s potential and beauty were certainly not lost on us. Having accomplished a full day of learning this art form of the fly, on the fly, was equally thrilling and encouraging. It was a thrill to experience new techniques on new water, and catch trout! I’m eager to return—to tap into this robust fishery in the future. For now, I’m now encouraged to develop my fly fishing skills on home waters, which will open up new waters and fishing opportunities to me in Maryland.

Cheers to the Arkansas River for scratching the fly fishing itch. Now I’m craving this sport and looking forward to targeting Chesapeake Bay species on the fly. I have a feeling I’m about to embark down a rabbit hole of infinite possibility. See y’all on the water again, real soon!

Rainbow trout were the catch of the day on the stretch of river we waded.