DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Arkansas River in Colorado

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.

Fly Fishing The Arkansas River Near Buena Vista & Salida, Colorado

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.

Arkansas River Map, Fishing Access Sites and Boat Launches

Arkansas River fishing access map

Get directions to fishing access points and real-time stream flow data with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Arkansas River

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).

Arkansas River Flow and Current Conditions

ARKANSAS RIVER NEAR NATHROP, CO

  • Streamflow: -999999 ft³/s
  • Gage height: -999999 ft
Streamflow Graph Gage height Graph
USGS

Best Time to Fish the Arkansas River

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.

Best Flies for Arkansas River

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)

Need flies? 

Ventures Fly Co. offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere.  Set includes 40 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and waterproof fly box. 

Dry Flies
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant

Nymphs/Wet Flies
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black

Streamers
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)

Arkansas River Fishing Tips

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.

Need Gear? 

Below are recommendations for essential gear to make the most of your time on the water.

Quality rod, reel, line and rod tube at a reasonable price. Backed by Orvis 25-yr guarantee, a brand you can trust.

High performance nylon leader, great for fishing Dry Flies, Nymphs and Streamers.

Excellent knot strength, stretch and suppleness make this the finest nylon tippet.  3-pack of the sizes you'll need the most.

Heavy duty, waterproof, yet breathable.  If you are tough on waders, these are for you. Backed by Simms Wader Warranty. If they leak, they got your back.

Most durable, yet comfortable, boot on the market.  Excellent foot and ankle support.  Great for rocky rivers. Lightweight and designed for all-day wear.

Sweet pack with ample storage. Unique harness system reduces neck strain. Sleek tapered face improves visibility - you can see your feet when wading!

Durable and lightweight. The carbon fiber frame floats.  Hooks don't get stuck in the rubber mesh bag . Extra length makes it easier to net fish.  Simply the best nets on the market.

Tough, waterproof and priced right. Hold 900+ flies in slotted foam.  If you need more storage - you have too many flies!

Simple, sharp nippers at great price. Clip on retractor keeps this must have gear at your fingertips.

Strong with a fine tip. Perfect for removing split shot and hooks. Simply the best fishing pliers.

The 580 Glass polarized lenses are super clear and somehow relaxing on the eyes.  Game changer.

Note: DIY Fly Fishing earns a commission (at no cost to you) on sales made using the links above. Thank you for your support!

Arkansas River Fishing Reports

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.

Arkansas River Fishing Regulations

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.

Arkansas River Trip Planning Tips

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.

Looking for more places to fish? Visit our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Colorado.


Ken Sperry

About the author

Ken is an avid fisherman of 40+ years who loves to explore and find new places to fish. He created DIY Fly Fishing to help you do the same.

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