The final installment.
Prior to our trip, I thought the Arkansas River was probably in or near Arkansas. Silly me. I should have known it would be right in the center of Colorado, only about 970 miles from Little Rock.
Doover2 discovered in his research that the Arkansas River was another Gold Medal Stream that was only about 20 miles further away than the Tomahawk section of the South Platte River. The scuttlebutt was that the trout were just as numerous, but not as picky as the ones on the South Platte – sounded like my kind of place.
On Tuesday morning, we loaded up and headed for Buena Vista, CO. We drove across the beautiful South Park basin again until we hit some mountains on the other side of it. Buena Vista was nestled in the Arkansas River valley, right before we reached the Collegiate Mountains. (I’m not joking. There is a range of some of the highest mountains in Colorado that are named Mount Harvard, Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, Mount Columbia, and Mount Oxford.)
We liked our chances of catching a lot of trout on the Arkansas River, but we stopped in at a fly shop to get some local advice because we had been humbled quite a bit over the previous three days. As the Bible says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” If poor in spirit is what it takes, we were pretty close to being blessed, hopefully on the Arkansas.
The young man at the fly shop was friendly, helpful, and humble at heart – quite different from the arrogant young guns in other fly shops near destination rivers. Along with helping us pick out some flies, he told us that they had intentionally been dropping the flow on the river for the past week now that the snow melt was past. One thing he said made me want to cry: “If they’d ever keep it the same level for even one day, the trout would settle down and begin biting again.” I think he just tipped us off that we were in for another challenging day.
Apparently, the Arkansas River is a favorite for tubers, rafters, and kayakers. When we got to our access point, there were literally busloads of folks with helmets, life jackets, and paddles arriving. Fortunately, they were all going downriver and we were going upriver. As per the instructions given us at the fly shop, we crossed the river right at the parking lot, climbed a fairly steep bank, and began walking along an abandoned railroad track that paralleled the river.
From the railroad track, we had a great vantage point to look down into pools and see some large trout that were feeding. The advice we received said that dry/dropper rigs were the way to go. We spread out across several different pools and began our quest for drag-free drifts. I still had my oversized beetle dry fly up top and a JuJu Baetis below. I had a large trout come up and put his nose on my beetle and follow it downstream for five to six yards before getting cold fins. About two casts afterwards, he came up again and hit the beetle with a vengeance. But the beetle had the last laugh. It brought the first fish of the day to the net, and it was a nice one.
Strangely enough, we couldn’t coax many trout to dry flies after that. But we did start having some success with big stone flies and caddis larva. Since they had been lowering the water level for several days, I expected the river to be fairly shallow. But the pools were very deep – way too deep to wade – and there was a strong current that made crossing the river dangerous in the shallow areas. It made us wonder what it was like to fish it before they began lowering the river.
We did a lot of our fishing by standing on boulders along the river bank. I had the most success fishing ambush points where the water would flow between two boulders that were fairly close together. If I could get my Pat’s Rubber Legs or Sexy Walts Worm to drift between the boulders, I was often rewarded with a nice trout.
We fished about four hours along that stretch of the Arkansas. I was in double figures and most of the other guys were finding fish too. We weren’t catching huge fish, but they were respectable. By the time the sun was high in the sky, we could tell that the bite was beginning to slow down.
I haven’t said much about the exploits of Doover1 on our trip. D1 is an excellent tightline fisherman. The rivers he fishes in Georgia and North Carolina don’t have abundant hatches so dry fly fishing is not as productive as nymphing 98% of the time. But since arriving in Colorado, almost all of our fishing had been with dries or dry/droppers, so Doover1 was not fishing to his strengths. But Doover1 also had more than his fair share of bad luck: broken tippet, knots that came loose, LDRs, refusals, etc. It seemed like every fish he hooked, came unbuttoned in a different way.
But Doover1 had his moment of glory on the Arkansas. As we were walking down the railroad tracks on the way back to our vehicles, we could see several large trout feeding off the bottom of a pool. D1 made his way down the boulders to the rivers edge, determined to catch at least one of those trout while the rest of us were watching from above, offering advice, and cheering him on. D1 is at his best when others are watching, and he did not disappoint this time either. He brought two of those trout to the net.
Then something strange happened. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something black emerge from between some boulders. It was a mink. It stealthily went from rock to rock until it looked like it was going to try to bite Doover1. Instead, it got in the river and swam to the other side of D1 and crawled up on a rock about three feet from him. It just looked at Doover1, and Doover1 looked right back at it. After a long stare down, the mink disappeared into the depths of the river.
At first, I thought the mink was rabid, but eventually we surmised that the mink wanted D1 to catch it a trout. I suppose cajoling fishermen is easier than catching trout for itself. What is our country coming to?
At this point, Doover2 had to leave us to go to a family gathering in another part of Colorado for a few days. We tried another section of the Arkansas, but didn’t have much success. After an authentic Tex-Mex dinner in Buena Vista, Waymore, Doover1, and I headed back to the lodge for our last night in Colorado.
Even though our flights left out of Denver at 5 pm the next day, we wanted to try to squeeze every last drop out of our dream trip to Colorado. So the next morning we returned to the South Platte. The area known as Deckers was kinda, sorta on the way to the airport. and we figured that if we got off the river by 11 am, we could make our flights.
We had driven through the town of Deckers several times the previous days on our way to and from the South Platte and had noted that fishermen clogged the section of the river above the bridge. Sometimes we’d see the same people in the same pools for hours at a time. We were about to find out why.
Since it was a Wednesday, and since it was early in the morning, we arrived before anyone else and had our pick of the pools. I started at a pool I had fished about two years previously, and Waymore and Doover1 went downstream forty yards below me.
I started with a dry/dropper with my beetle on top and a Black Beauty beneath it. I could see an occasional trout follow my beetle and then veer off. There were lots of midges in the air but nothing was rising. But then it was as if someone threw on the light switch. All of a sudden, there were 20 to 30 trout porpoising consistently in the pool right in front of me. Some of them were in the 18″ to 20” range.
I looked downstream at Waymore and D1. They were waving at me to come down there. I was waving at them to come up where I was. Neither one of us moved.
There began my 1.5 hour nightmare of tying on dry fly after dry fly, emerger after emerger, soft hackle after soft hackle. There were plenty of rises, but an equal number of refusals. Eventually a 12” rainbow became confused by all my offerings and bit into something that it knew better than to bite. God bless that rainbow trout!
I had seen Waymore below me fighting to land a large trout. Tim also had hooked one, so I knew they were having more success than I was. Eventually, with about 20 minutes before we had to leave, I wandered down to where they were fishing. Waymore was having the most success, casting a size 24 parachute Adams to a small group of trout. Doover1 was on the board with a nice trout too.
Waymore told me to tie an Adams on and showed me where I should cast. But for some reason, I decided to put on a tiny midge dry fly with a little white piece of foam on top that I had bought in Buena Vista the day before. On the first cast, something moved toward my fly, but something weird happened to my drift and the subsurface aggressor backed off. On the second cast a large rainbow exploded through the surface to attack my fly. Getting it in the net put a huge smile on my face. It was a good trout on which to end my day of fishing.
Meanwhile, Doover1 made his way up to the area I had been fishing and caught two nice trout in the process.
Looking back on our trip, there’s only one or two things that I think we all would agree that if we had it to do over again, we would have done differently. We could have spent an entire day, maybe longer, in Cheesman Canyon. It’s too much of an investment in time and energy to hike down into the canyon only to spend a half day there. Plus, it is a fascinating place to fish.
The other way we questioned ourselves was in not hiring a guide. There’s no doubt that a knowledgeable guide could have helped us decode the river faster and put us on more and bigger fish. A strong case could be made that since we were investing so much already to make this a memorable trip, hiring a guide to help us get the most out of our money, time, and effort only makes sense.
But on the other hand, hiring a guide would have taken the fun out of figuring things out for ourselves. We wanted to test our abilities, and having a guide to lead us to predetermined spots and to pick out flies for us would have taken away our sense of accomplishment.
Actually, hiring a guide for one day would only have helped us for that one day. Each section of the river we fished was totally different from every other section. We were all trying to be as frugal as we could. While hiring one guide for one day might have been a possibility, there’s no way we could have done it for multiple days.
All-in-all, it was a great trip. Colorado is beautiful, the rivers had trout in abundance, and the weather could not have been better. But once again, the best part is the people. I could not ask for better company than Doover1, Doover2, and Waymore. Hopefully next year we can go Montana dreaming, or Pennsylvania dreaming, or West Virginia dreaming, or ….