After skiers lay their last tracks at Monarch Mountain, and before whitewater enthusiasts ply their paddles in Browns Canyon, there is a quiet period of time in the Upper Arkansas River Valley defined by the emergence of two aquatic insect species and the trout that rise to meet them.
Anglers from around the country gather on the Arkansas River’s banks near Salida and Buena Vista, Colorado to test their skills and toast the arrival of spring as the baetis mayflies and brachycentrus caddis flies emerge from the river to complete their life cycle. These spring hatches represent a protein bonanza for brown and rainbow trout that have wintered in a state of near hibernation and awaken with a ravenous appetite. For anglers, the hatches bring some of the first dry-fly fishing of the year, when small imitations of the insects can be drifted on the surface of the river, inducing aggressive strikes and long runs in the river’s swift current.
Timing the Spring Hatch
Beginning in late March, the baetis or blue-wing olive mayfly nymphs swim to the surface on cloudy afternoons to complete their metamorphosis, mate, and then lay their fertilized eggs in the river. At these times, trout will suspend just beneath the surface to take advantage of the vulnerable adult mayflies as they struggle to take wing. The resulting dry fly fishing is some of the first in Colorado and continues river-wide until spring runoff begins in late May.
Driven by rising water temperatures rather than low-light situations, the brachycentrus caddis hatch begins in the Canon City area around mid-April and is found further upstream each day as the light grows longer and the river warmer. Typically erupting in Salida around the end of April and in Buena Vista by May 10th, the caddis emergence brings out nonfishing spectators as well to watch the clouds of bugs come off the water and the behavior of the feeding fish.
If You Go:
The Arkansas River is one of the most popular fisheries in the state of Colorado. The quality of the fish, the diversity of the aquatic insect populations and the extensive public access are all cited reasons. With 80 percent wild brown trout and 20 percent stocked rainbow, the Arkansas River fishery averages 3,000 to 4,000 fish per mile. In addition, year-round fishing was enhanced by lower-water levels in 2012. Low flows allowed fish to feed more efficiently and expend less energy, and trout grew fat and sassy. The number of trout over 14 inches long increased 300-800 percent. These improvements are expected to persist for the next five years, creating a prime opportunity for anglers. Fly fishers should bring a good assortment of mayflies and caddis flies to match springtime hatches. Popular patterns include:
- Mayfly (parachute adams, sprout baetis and olive gulper specials)
- Mayfly Nymphs/Emergers (Barr emergers, juju baetis, RS2s and olive answers– Sizes #18-#22)
- Caddis Flies (black foam caddis, brown or tan elk hair caddis, peacock caddis and mother’s day caddis–size #16)
- Caddis Pupae (beadhead olive soft hackle, swing caddis, sparkle pupa and CDC flashback pheasant tail–sizes #16-#18)
Making the Pilgrimage to the Arkansas River
For dedicated anglers, a pilgrimage to the Arkansas River each spring kicks off the fishing season in high style. At a time when lodging occupancy is low and restaurants are moving few plates, the crowd of piscatorial persuasion following these hatches brings in a much appreciated revenue influx between tourism seasons. Affordable lodging, no waiting at great restaurants and a welcoming atmosphere at local watering holes make the après fish scene a key part of the experience. For six weeks each spring, fly-fishing takes over as the driving force of tourism in these communities.
Several local outfitters offer individualized instruction on private water and introductory-level equipment can be rented for the day. Hobnob with local anglers at the Trout Unlimited annual chapter banquet on the first Saturday of May. Or visit local fly shops in Salida or Buena Vista where information is their stock and trade.
This segment was submitted by Greg Felt of Arkanglers.
For the latest river and fishing conditions, visit www.arkanglers.com.