Your eyes do not deceive you: there is in fact an Arkansas River in the Colorado mountains. The headwaters can be found up around Leadville, from which the river make its way southward through the Arkansas River Valley, flowing by Buena Vista and Salida before running east into Royal Gorge.
From the gorge, the Arkansas meanders past Canon City and Pueblo, marking 150 miles of river from the headwaters before it reaches the Colorado Plains.
The waters of the Arkansas are prime territory for big browns that love to feast on the massive caddis hatches beneath the shade of the brush that overhangs the banks, especially along the stretch of river that runs from Brown’s Canyon to the Royal Gorge.
For those that love float fishing through the canyons, Royal Gorge is one of the deepest canyons in all of Colorado, and you would be hard pressed find a better canyon view in all of Colorado.
Floating is an especially popular approach for anglers who visit the Arkansas, and there are numerous outfitters in Salida and Buena Vista that can set you up with what you need to spend the day landing browns.
The Arkansas isn’t known for especially large brown trout or gigantic rainbows, but it is known for its massive population numbers. Environmental cleanup over the last 30 years has gone a long way to helping the Arkansas thrive.
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The prime stretch for brown trout is definitely the canyons between Salida and Swissvale through the Royal Gorge. The waters here are teeming with brown trout, and while the Arkansas doesn’t have a reputation for river monsters, anglers routinely record landing browns over 17 inches.
Most anglers who favor the Arkansas tend to visit when they want to catch a lot of fish during the day. Floating is highly recommended for canyon fishing, and most visitors agree that taking a float down the Arkansas provides the greatest chance of a successful day.
To get to the Arkansas from Leadville, just hop on Highway 24 south bound and you’ll be there in no time. If you are leaving from Denver, you will be taking 285 to the 24 junction near Buena Vista, and from Colorado Springs you can reach the Arkansas from either 24 to Buena Vista or 115 southwest via Canyon City to follow the river along 50 west.
The best jumping off points along the Arkansas are definitely in Salida and Buena Vista, as both offer a wide variety of outfitting and accommodation services for anglers visiting the Arkansas River year round. Primary access points are Brown’s Canyon, Big Bend, Bighorn Sheep Canyon Big Bend, Salida East, and Rincon (see map above).
Prime season for fishing the Arkansas River is definitely the Mother’s Day Caddis fly hatch in the spring, but winter midge fishing also offers plenty of action as well. Most of the locals mark the prime season of the year on the Arkansas as March 1st through Halloween at the end of October, so no matter when you visit, you are in for some good action.
As far as time of day is concerned, the browns and rainbows of the Arkansas tend to be most active between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., so you can spend a leisurely six hours or so floating or wading the stretch of water you like best.
The primary hatches along the Arkansas are the BWO in summertime and fall, midges in the winter, and caddis and stoneflies in the springtime, so plan accordingly.
Some proven fly patterns for the Arkansas River include:
- Elk Hair Caddis (tan #14-16)
- Two-bit hooker (olive/red #18/16)
- Pheasant tail nymph (natural/flash #14-18)
- Stonefly nymph (golden #10-16)
- Zebra midge (black/red #18)
A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Arkansas River. For larger nymphs and streamers a 9-foot 6-wt with a sink tip fly line makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.
There are a number of area fly shops and on-line retailers that publish Arkansas River fishing reports. A few to check out are listed below.
Fishing regulations in the area are sectional, so know where you are and what the rules for that section are.
Stockyard Bridge below Saluda to Badger Creek is a 7.5 mile section that is catch-and-release only for rainbow trout.
Chaffee, Fremont, and Lake Counties all have a two fish possession limit from the Highway 24 Bridge downstream to the lower boundary of Hayden Ranch.
Finally, from Middle Fork of South Arkansas headwaters to Boss Lake are catch-and-release only.
The Arkansas is close enough to Colorado Springs that you can generally find an inexpensive air fare to visit. The drive along US-24 West is just over 2 hours. There are numerous hunting and fishing cabins in the area along both sides of the river, and public campgrounds are available in the many National Parks near Gunnison.
Traditional accommodations are easy enough to find too, but book well in advance if you are visiting during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch.
Don’t forget to check out vacation rentals as well, particularly near the ski resorts. Many vacation condos and chalets provide opportunities for bargain accommodations if you visit the area during the off-season.
Ken is an avid fisherman of 40+ years who loves to explore and is on a quest to map the best places for fly fishing in America. He created the DIY Fly Fishing App to share this information and help you find new places to fish.
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