Friday, April 15, 2011

On the River: Arkansas, Pueblo, CO

November 27 and 28
January 8 and 29
February 19
(and some other random dates)

Prior to June 14th 2010 I didn't even know this stretch of river existed. Living in Gunnison, CO one doesn't exactly seek out what trout fishing there is east of Pike's Peak. Pueblo ?!@!? I assumed the Ark came out of Bighorn Sheep Canyon and turned into a sandy mud-hole and that may have been the case before the reservoir went in.

However, since the advent of mankind building huge dams and releasing cold, clean water from the bottom of said dams trout fishing has no doubt changed in the U.S. (along with the negative impact on Salmon fishing, but I've never lived near the coasts enough to know what I'm missing). And so, I find myself living on the Front Range of Colorado and very excited about the prospect of Pueblo, CO having a tailwater fishery that averages air temps in the 50's all winter long. Throw in the fact that it's a pretty good fishery and you've got yourself a winning combination!

The Negatives:
  1. Put and take fishery - They stock it heavily with 4" fish, but there is no shortage of worm-dunkers salivating as the hatchery truck pulls out of the parking lot.
  2. Low flows - By this stage of the river the Ark should be pushing at a solid 500 CFS in low winter flows, but since the front range folks need water, they pull a substantial amount out of the river, leaving winter flows at 60 CFS. Combine that with not much gradient and you get a river that has 1 fishable riffle every 100 yards, and some pretty stagnant water in sections.
  3. Shoulder to shoulder - See point #2. With a riffle every 100 yards you get a lot of crowding.
  4. New Regulations - Yeah, it's kind of a negative in my mind. They designated a stretch that all fish over 16" must be returned immediately. In a put in take fishery, it means people are still doing a lot of "taking" after the hatchery truck rolls away. In the end, you get an apocalyptic battle (similar to Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome) for fish to make it to the 16" mark. Once they've made it they are then unchallenged to grow to any size possible! So, you have very FEW - HUGE - fish, and nothing in between. Time will tell, but my hunch is this is a bad management tactic.
The Positives:
  1. Warmth - Pueblo is pretty awesome weather all winter long. Michelle and I have skipped a few "cold" days, but all-in-all, compared to Gunnison winter fishing you could literally fish EVERY DAY of the winter here.
  2. Insects galore - From visiting this fishery over the span of four months it is clear that the insect population is alive and well. Hatches come on very strong! After a few seines it would appear that the population of midges, baetis and caddis are very healthy.
  3. Fish with an eye on the surface - While they are mostly stocked fish, I noticed an affinity for rising, and surprisingly, it only took them a few weeks in the river before they would actually reject your fly! That's pretty good for stockers.
  4. Large - Naturally, if you have a good bug population you get some pretty substantial growth. On one of my visits with low flows and good visibility I spotted a solid 10 fish in a deep pool that were all over 18". I'm pretty confident that one or two I saw was in the 26"+ range!
  5. Special Regs - Yeah, it's a pro too. I mean, for all my complaints above, at least there is a section of protected water with BIG fish.
Thanksgiving was the first time I hit this stretch and Dad and I must have only been a couple of days behind the stocking truck. There was a large quantity of 3" to 7" fish. It made for a great day since we were able to fish every possible pocket and pick up a few fish. The first day we fished there the baetis were in full force, and fish were taking naturals quite greedily, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention that it took a good imitation and a delicate drift to fool them.

Later in the day, Dad and I moved upstream to just below the dam. Dad got locked into a spot that he stayed put in the rest of the day, picking up fish that even pushed the 12" mark. I moved my way upstream testing new water and techniques, trying to find out what "quirks" the river had. All in all it was pretty standard fishing. It reminded my a lot of fishing the White and Norfork rivers in Arkansas - wide, shallow in most spots, not too fast of water. It was nymphing one of the deeper runs that I picked up a hefty rainbow, and a decent brown too.

Over the course of my next couple of trips I discovered a few things. It fished much like the first time. I slowly figured out that you can consistently take smaller fish in fun spots like a shallow gravel riffle. Even if you don't think they're in there, they are and it's a pretty sweet way to fish. The big dogs (so far) have lived exclusively in the deep slow holes leaving you with the options of swinging streamers, or SLOW-nymphing (which I find pretty boring). The best I've found so far is every 1/2 mile or so there will be a riffle that is just perfect - marble sized gravel that shelfs off from 12" to about 6' deep over the course of 30' or so. These locations give you a great drift and some big fish!

Currently, my theory is that hitting the hatches right could produce some awesome fishing for the 20"+ fish in shallower water. I had one afternoon where the baetis were starting to come on strong, but not on the surface yet and the lighting was getting low so visibility was poor. I ended up fishing some riffles that I didn't even realize were shallow until I had fished through them. EPIC, would be an understatement. I went from picking up a fish in a riffle every 20 minutes or so, to picking up a fish every cast or so. I also went from an average of 6" fish to an average of 12" fish. My hunch is that baetis started releasing from the streambed to get to the surface and the better fish responded in kind by moving into the shallower riffles where they could gorge on them. There was one 14" fish that was so shallow my fly hit the water in a 4" deep riffle and in two seconds my indicator was stopped and I lifted up on this fish!

Each time I went, I grew a little more fond of the river, and our last outing was our best time (in terms of size). Michelle and I spent 2 hours in one riffle and picked up 4 fish over the 16" mark (sadly, Michelle lost both of hers before they got to the net, but one of them was about 19"), along with some smaller fish.

I would definitely rate the Arkansas at Pueblo as a great fishery. What it lacks in authenticity, and water quality, it makes up for with a good stocking program. If you're looking for a pristine mountain river without a soul around while you fish to native trout ... probably not your spot. If you're looking for a good time, with a lot of fish, warm winter temps, a chance at some 20"+ trout and don't mind crowds it's a sweet option.

I'm pretty excited to even get out there this Spring, Summer and Fall, but I have a hunch that the allure of the South Platte and other streams in the area will pull me away. We shall see.

Tight lines,

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