SALIDA — Nothing has really changed on the upper Arkansas River. Yet everything is different.
After nearly 30 years of work, the Ark has become an overnight sensation. The formerly unheralded river with a reputation for heavy-metal contamination has suddenly entered the conversation as a contender for the title of Colorado’s top trout fishing stream.
While it has yet to claim that crown, the river did pick up a Gold Medal last winter when Colorado Parks and Wildlife proclaimed a full 102-mile segment of the upper Arkansas among the state’s elite trout fisheries.
The Gold Medal Trout Water designation from the confluence with the Lake Fork of the Arkansas, near Leadville, downstream to Parkdale (just above the Royal Gorge) is easily the state’s longest, and brings the statewide total of Gold Medal river miles to 322. Then again, if you’re planning to catch a big fish on the Arkansas, where have you been?
“It has met the criteria since 2002, but I hadn’t even really thought about it. You’re busy managing the fishery, just trying to make this river the best it can be with the cards you’re dealt, and trying to influence some of those cards and get a few more aces in your hand, if you will, to try to make things as good as possible,” said Greg Policky, CPW aquatic biologist for the area since 1992. “So I always knew it met Gold Medal, but I never really thought about trying to actually get it designated until about this time last year.”
In order to receive a Gold Medal listing, a river must consistently support a standing stock of trout weighing at least 60 pounds per acre and a minimum average of 12 quality trout — larger than 14 inches — per acre. The secret to achieving those numbers, at least when it comes to brown trout, turns out to be drought.
No one in the fishing community is lobbying for a water shortage, but research shows that less is often more when it comes growing big brown trout in freestone rivers, especially during critical spring months when fry are emerging and adults are trying to bank calories for the impending runoff. Historic drought in 2002 put that in perspective on the Arkansas.
“In 2002, people in the general populace kind of went, ‘Whoa, look at these fish,’” Policky said. “We went from less than 10 fish per acre over 14 inches to close to 60 per acre that year. In one year, just a huge increase because that growing season was so good.”
Of course, none of those fish would have grown to “quality” size if the quality of the water itself hadn’t improved due to the cleanup efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s that eventually inspired Gold Medal validation. Before then, fish in the river around Salida could survive only about three years before the cumulative effects of mining pollution would take their toll. Upstream near Leadville, the fish couldn’t survive at all.
“It was acutely toxic,” Policky said. “It affected the food resources as well, so it wasn’t just a survival thing. It was a growth and fitness thing.”
Greg Felt, who runs the ArkAnglers fishing guide service in Salida and Buena Vista, remembers those days. Since the late 1980s, he has watched the trout in his local river grow from 10-inch “trophies” to genuinely respectable fish living up to 10 years. A recent half-day outing yielded average trout in the 13- to 14-inch range, with some stretching the tape closer to 16 inches.
Clearly, the fishing is not what it used to be on the Arkansas. It’s better.
“When they got that water quality right, it allowed fish to live longer and our aquatic entomology to diversify. That was the foundation of everything that followed,” Felt said. “We love our caddis, but we’re not dependent on caddis anymore. We’ve got so many mayflies and stoneflies now.”
The fabled Mother’s Day caddis hatch that marches its way upstream from Canon City to Browns Canyon every May was once the main attraction for Arkansas River anglers. But now it has some year-round competition already drawing attention.
“I do think there are some people who are coming here who haven’t before just because of the Gold Medal designation. I mean, how could that not be true?” Felt said. “But really, I think what you’ve got is a lot of people that really love this river, and as long as you’ve got decent weather they’re coming fishing. When you are talking about spring fishing on a freestone in Colorado, this place, if it’s not the best, it’s one of the best.”