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Trout Fishing in the Arkansas

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE CAST LANDED SOMEWHERE in the vicinity of where I wanted it to, and when the fly drifted into the riffle it stopped dead. I lifted the rod’s tip, probably too quickly. There was a big splash and a yellowish flash. The big brown trout rolled over and, using the tension of my rod, sprung the fake bug right back at me. The fly nearly hit me in the face, and the rest of the line floated loosely through the air, coiling at my feet.

Judging from the brief glimpse, that was the biggest fish I’ve ever come close to fooling on the Arkansas River. I don’t fish the river that much, but this time of year when all work and no play makes Hal a dull boy, it’s pretty much the only water around. Besides, it’s nearly caddis fly time. And it won’t last for long. Sometime in mid-May the spring runoff will come, washing the good fishing away in its roily wake.

There are about 50 different types of caddis flies in the Arkansas, but the most common, the one that is the cause of all the fuss, is the Brachycentridae. If it sounds like this is getting a bit too scientific, that’s because it is. The annual caddis hatch is somewhat of an enigma.

Consider, for example, that technically these flies are not really “hatching,” but rather “emerging.” But it would be awkward to refer to the phenomenon as an “emergence.”

Caddis flies follow roughly a year-long life cycle that begins when they really do hatch from eggs as larvae. They grow up dining upon organic matter on the river bottom. At a certain point in their maturation, caddis flies build a cocoon and settle in for transformation. In the spring as the water warms, they leave this case as pupae and emerge on the surface — if they get past the roughly 2,000 or so fish per mile in the Arkansas.

Many of these survivors wind up on the windshields of passing motorists.

But a good number also live long enough, up to a month, to continue the cycle by mating and laying eggs back in the river.

For several years the Chaffee County Visitors Bureau and the Collegiate Peaks Trout Unlimited Chapter have been hosting the Caddis Fly Festival in early May to celebrate the fine fishing that goes along with the hatch. The event revolves around the annual fund-raising banquet and auction for Trout Unlimited. This year’s festival is May 1-3.

When I was a youngster I loved to fish. But something about tempting the fate of finny critters with bits of feathers tied to fishhooks really fascinated me. So while other kids my age were getting involved in Little League baseball, I was saving my allowance to buy a cheap fly reel and line. I affixed this pot-metal spool with handle to a short fiberglass rod that was really meant for baitcasting. From the banks of a park pond I plucked a few duck feathers which I used to craft makeshift flies with model-airplane glue and thread pilfered from mom’s sewing chest. This was not state-of-the-art fly-fishing gear, but soon my family was tired of eating fish; indeed, so were the neighbors.

Though the fish it seems had hardly noticed, I realized at some point that I had reached the limits of my outfit’s technology. Somehow I earned enough money to buy a Garcia fiberglass fly rod. I outfitted this brown beauty with a new Herter’s Model 709 reel and a floating line. A fly-tying kit, also from Herter’s, showed up under the Christmas tree.

Herter’s was the Cabela’s of its day.

I was about 10 years old. And if I remember anything about fly fishing back then, it would be that it was decidedly not trendy or overly technical. But if you happen along the banks of the Arkansas these days, you’ll notice that times have changed. During high caddis season in late April and early May you’re likely to see sport yuptility rigs lining the highway along the river. Their owners, dressed in khaki and neoprene, and wielding expensive fly rods, are standing in the water below the highway, casting and mending.

THE COLORADO DIVISION OF WILDLIFE’s most recent creel survey taken in 1995 showed that nearly 68,000 anglers fished the Arkansas between Granite and Parkdale that year. About 75% of those anglers were fly-fishers, and the bulk of them fished the river during the caddis hatch.

I view with some alarm the sport’s recent popularity, which many people agree began with the release of the movie A River Runs Through It. It’s been my experience that the glorification of nearly anything decent usually taints it to some degree. Take coffee, microbrew, and Colorado real estate for examples. The signs are all already here. One area fly-fishing shop can special order a titanium fly reel for $12,000, a price in the neighborhood of what I recently borrowed to buy a used truck. And while that’s extreme, you could easily spend $1,000 to gear up for fly-fishing, especially if you want the stylish clothes to go with your expensive equipment. And surely you do. Otherwise the fish might laugh at your duds before you release them.

CATCH-AND-RELEASE fishing is an odd concept, though I often practice it and keep only a few fish to eat. We’re talking about a blood sport that evolved from a basic food-gathering activity. While some anglers use outlandishly expensive gear to catch fish and turn them loose, one in 10 American citizens routinely visits a charity food bank or soup kitchen.

Something seems out of balance.

What next? Shoot-and-release elk hunting, whereby you shoot an elk with a tranquilizer gun, track it down, pull out the needle, kindly stroke its head while posing for pictures, and then walk away? It really doesn’t help with the protein bill, though it is true that catch-and-release fishing does help to sustain populations in hard-fished waters.

One local fly-fishing shop owner estimates about 90% of all fly-fishing enthusiasts practice catch-and-release. The fly-fishing and tourism industries foster this practice because it conserves the resource.

Higher numbers of fish mean more anglers are likely to spend more money trying to catch them. There are signs along the Arkansas with illustrations showing how to properly release fish, and urging anglers to mash the barbs on their hooks to aid in releasing fish without injury.

It’s just a suggestion, but perhaps fisherpersons should be required to have the price they paid for their fly rods etched into the shaft, just ahead of the cork grip. Anyone fishing with a fly rod worth more than $200 should be required to practice catch-and-release. The rest of us may keep a few to eat if we wish.

The Arkansas is an unlikely trout stream, its natural ecosystem so altered by man that it will probably never resemble the wild river that once was home to the now threatened greenback strain of cutthroat trout.

The big picture is really quite complicated, but let’s just say that a combination of metal-mining pollution, wildly fluctuating water levels due to transmountain water diversion and downstream user demands, and the lack of forage fish for the predominant brown trout, all add up to a fishery with great numbers of smaller- to medium-sized fish but very few trophies.

Many experts agree that recent cleanup efforts in the Leadville Mining District have improved the fishery somewhat, but it’s likely that the big brown trout that spit a fly back at me will remain the exception rather than the rule. That’s fine with me. While the Arkansas isn’t the best trout river in the West, it’s not a bad stream to have in our own back yard either.

Time is truly but the stream that writer Hal Walter of Westcliffe goes a-fishing in.