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Arkansas Traveler: Fall Fishing for Brown Trout

Dateline – Near Salida and Cañon City, Colorado. It seems counterintuitive, a misnomer. The Arkansas River heads in the high country of southern Colorado, and a portion of northern New Mexico. It’s the fourth longest river in the United States, obviously named for an encounter in its namesake state. But it seems like it ought to be called something else, like the “Rio Truchas” or “Boulder River” or “Pike’s River.” Its moniker doesn’t fit, here at least. Zebulon Pike passed through here under Jefferson’s watch in his zealous attempt at exploring the then-northern Spanish colony. Pike got arrested for his endeavor, and in the complex outcome, was paroled in Mexico. For it all, he got a peak named after him; its waters feed the Arkansas.

When Pike and his men passed this way, and documented the arduous task of working through the desolate modern-day Royal Gorge cut by an eroding Arkansas River, the greenback cutthroat trout (the closest kin to New Mexico’s state fish – the Rio Grande cutthroat trout in my home state) swam in these cold waters upstream of Cañon City in great abundance.

Today, the past lives on in memory, in place name, biographies and historical archives. The native greenback has retreated to the smallest and isolated tributary streams. In the face of brown trout imported from Europe, the greenback could not compete for food and space. The native trout spawns in spring, and the introduced brown trout in the fall. When the young browns are well on their way in their first year, they are already the meat-eaters they are meant to be; the greenback young are no match for the larger brown trout when they emerge from the gravels. The browns took over.

A tourist train plies through what was nearly impassable to Pike. The world’s highest suspension bridge spans the deep canyon, some 1,200 feet above. Its walls in places look like a layered wedding cake, the strata tilted by the wild convulsions of planet Earth’s plates. Elsewhere, the various colored canyon walls are swirled like giant slabs of ice cream. In the cold waters, rafts waft in frothy white water, and jog in the vitreous glides of slow water between the rapids. Underneath them, and about my ankles, brown trout make a home in the rocky reaches in unexpected places.

The Arkansas River here is a freestone stream for 120 miles from Leadville to Cañon City. There are no dams on the Arkansas proper until it flows into Pueblo Reservoir well downstream from the headwaters, and by then has warmed to the point that trout cannot live in it. This mountain stream has now transcended into a slow prairie river.

These upper reaches are for brown trout. And there is no shortage of fish. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has reported in excess of 4,000 trout per stream mile where the river is broad and braided. In the tighter canyon, there is less habitat and less trout.

Autumn angling on the Arkansas is hot. As the water cools, brown trout set up to spawn by the close of November. Couple that with a caddisfly hatch that lasts the month of October, and the stage is set for some frenzied action. A sporadic blue-wing olive hatch that lasts the fall season is icing on the cake. These mayflies emerge to fly away, or feed trout, on cool gray, rainy or snowy days.

But with opportunity comes the need for precaution; as the fall season progresses, the flow drops, the water clears, and the brown trout spook easy. That means you apply caution: watch your shadows; use a long leader and light tippet, a 5x on a size 16-18 fly, and 6x on a size 20-22.

Where the rocky cliffs edge back from the stream, the waters fan out into smaller straits. I stepped up one of these braids in the Arkansas, and it looked more like the waters of the Guadalupe River in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. In water not more than 12 inches deep, and about that same distance from the bank, I paid out line and laid a blue-wing olive in a little chute below a couple of large gray and red boulders. It was a muscular pull under the shadows of shrubby streamside willows. A brown trout turned the line taut. It didn’t swim – it TUMBLED downstream toward the net. Exposed to the bright sun, the fish showed a hint of the coming spawn. Its paired fins were trimmed in white; a little bead at the tip of its lower jaw swelled as a sign of how it would morph into a hook jaw later in the season. It was bronzed, like a sculpture. Seventeen inches of pugnacious fish flesh with a stout flick of the tail swam back into the streaming current of this river that seems like it ought to be named something else.


Craig Springer is a writer in Santa Fe County, New Mexico. His great-granddad, T.T. Springer, called Buena Vista home until his death in 1927. If you have information on the Cañon City DeWitt family that T.T. married into, email


  1. willow springer willow springer November 4, 2012

    Hi great article dad
    do another one!!!!:)

  2. willow springer willow springer November 4, 2012


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