Fishing Close To Home: Rocky Mountain Arsenal — ‘Come for the Buffalo, Stay for the Fishing’

RMANWR buffalo in road by Wayne D. Lewis
Buffalo bull crossing the road. — Photo by Wayne D. Lewis (CPW)

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there,” I sang, but not as loudly as the young men in the commercial. Their car had just been crushed by a bull buffalo, whereas I just had a large bull sauntering across the road, mere feet from my car’s front bumper. It was the closest I had been to a free-ranging buffalo in, well, ever. Although the bull wasn’t threatening me at all, we had made some serious eye contact a few seconds earlier. Signs advise you to stay in the car, I gladly took the advice.

It felt like I was in the middle of Yellowstone National Park, but I was actually only 7 miles from my northeast Denver home — in the heart of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. If the proverbial crow flew from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport, he would grab a midflight snack at the arsenal.

Lake Ladora. © Wayne D. Lewis
Lake Ladora. — Photo by Wayne D. Lewis (CPW)

I am a recent convert to the charms of the refuge, having taken a number of trips over the past year to photograph the refuge’s buffalo, coyotes, deer (both muleys and whitetails), prairie dogs, hawks, eagles, owls (even the kind that burrow), ducks and more. However, wildlife photography took a back seat on this trip, for it was the first weekend of June, and in Colorado, that means free fishing. Every year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife holds its annual free fishing weekend to introduce newbies, especially children, to fishing. Any other time, a fishing license is required for anyone age 16 and up. I buy my license in April to get as much fishing in as my schedule allows, but for once I was going to check out this great opportunity. (Although no fishing licenses were required, there is a daily fee of $3 to fish at the refuge.) I was also there to try out a new fishing lure, the Alabama Rig, but that’s another story: “Alabama Getaway” in the 2013 Colorado Outdoors Fishing Guide, out now.

If you were asked to describe the first day in June, I am pretty sure you would depict what I experienced: blue skies, a temperature that was warm but not hot, cool breezes, birds in the sky and families with cheerful kids enjoying the outdoors. It would have been a perfect day if only I had been able to catch a fish or two. After an hour or so of casting and retrieving I was getting sun and catching rays, but wasn’t catching any of the northern pike, largemouths or bluegills that fin the 55-acre Lake Ladora. I was skunked.

Raccoons at the refuge are bold and have lost their fear of humans. © Wayne D. Lewis
Raccoons at the refuge are bold and have lost their fear of humans. — Photo by Wayne D. Lewis (CPW)

Not only was I skunked, I was ’cooned. A young raccoon had wandered down the rocky shore and, before I noticed, it had made it to my backpack. It started digging in my stuff so I began to climb the wobbly rocks to scare it off. It gave me a far more menacing stare than the buffalo had earlier so I decided to hold back and take some photos. Just seconds after I grabbed my camera it nabbed the remains of my sandwich and tore off down the shore with me in pursuit. I have worked on countless brochures that state “don’t feed the wildlife,” unfortunately, this time I hadn’t had much choice in the matter. Earlier I had taken photos and video of one of the ’coons catching and eating crayfish — I bet my sandwich tasted better.

I decided to take the short walk to fish from the floating boardwalks and fishing piers of Lake Mary, hoping to catch some of the largemouth bass, channel catfish, white and black crappie, bluegill and yellow perch that inhabit the little lake. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the thought and effort that went into the creation of Lake Mary. If you ever want to introduce someone to the sport of fishing, this is a great place to do it. I found a spot under the much-needed shade of one of the mature cottonwoods that ring the lake and began to work the Alabama Rig. Other anglers were pulling out little bass and bluegill, but the allure of my rig was apparently wasted on Lake Mary’s fish.

Lake Mary is the smaller of the refuge's two lakes. © Wayne D. Lewis
Lake Mary is the smaller of the refuge’s two lakes. — Photo by Wayne D. Lewis (CPW)

After an hour or so, I came to the brutal realization that my stubbornness to stick with one type of lure had cost me dearly in fishing success. But all in all, there are many ways to measure success in an afternoon of fishing.


Will Kane showcases a pike caught from Lake Mary. © Jerry Neal
Will Kane showcases a pike caught from Lake Mary. — Photo by Jerry Neal (CPW)

For more information on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife refuge go to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

6550 Gateway Road

Commerce City, CO 80022

From I-70 exit at Quebec Street and go north. Travel approximately 2.8 miles to Prairie Parkway/64th Avenue. Turn right at Prairie Parkway and travel 0.6 miles to Gateway Road. Turn left at Gateway Road. Continue on Gateway Road until you pass through the Refuge entrance.

 Refuge and Visitor Center Hours

The Refuge is open seven days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Visitor Center is open Tuesdays – Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Refuge and Visitor Center are closed on federal holidays. Call 303-289-0930 for more information.

There is a $3 daily fee to fish the arsenal. © Wayne D. Lewis
There is a $3 daily fee to fish the arsenal. — Photo by Wayne D. Lewis (CPW)

Fishing Lakes and Regulations

Public fishing is offered as a recreational, fee-based program mid-April through mid-October. The funds generated will be used to improve and maintain facilities associated with fishing and other refuge programs. Permits, fishing regulations and lake locations can be found at the kiosk next to the fee collection box in the parking lot at the contact station. All fishing is catch and release, with barbless hooks only.

A daily fee of $3.00 per adult, age 16 and older is required. Along with the refuge permit you must have a state fishing license. Please come with exact change or a check made payable to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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