THE ARKANSAS RIVER is the crown of Southern Colorado fishing. From its headwaters, where the river finds its beginnings near Leadville, 150 miles to our west, to the wide and brushy expanses of John Martin Reservoir 100 miles to our east, the river is the lifeblood for the area. A ribbon of unexpected silver that cuts through the parched plains, the Arkansas River and its associated fisheries isn’t what you’d expect to find here. Surprising jewels of gold, silver, bronze, and even rainbows, though, make up the crown and await those who sample the waters.
Gold: To our west the flows of a millennia of Arkansas River currents cuts through granite, sandstone, clay banks and red rocks to form the longest flowing freestone river in the state. With roughly 150 miles of freestone river flowing between the headwaters in Leadville and the Lake Pueblo dam, the Arkansas River offers anglers a wide variety of terrain and breathtaking views while fishing within a stone’s throw of US 50.
Home to wild brown trout, the river upstream of Canon City and stretching to Salida, known as Bighorn Sheep Canyon, is a popular destination for locals and anglers from across the state. A fly fisher’s paradise, the river is known nationally for its hatches of Mother’s Day caddis, golden stoneflies, and a variety of mayflies. And while the majority of the river is open to bait fishing, a stretch of several miles, just downstream of Salida, is designated for artificial flies and lures only. Check your fishing regulations and watch for the signs along the highway as you venture west to make sure that you’re using the appropriate gear for the area.
River flows are dictated by snow melt and inter-mountain water transfers that bring water from Colorado’s Western Slope through the Boustead Tunnel. With typical flows in the 400 – 800 CFS range, the Arkansas River is a diverse fishery that boasts over 1000 fish per mile.
Fishing in the upper stretches of the river can be exceptional throughout the year, with action that begins to heat up as the ice comes off in late February and, with few exceptions, continues into December. Late spring, however, begins the runoff period when mountain snows begin to melt and flows may increase to 2000 CFS or more. The runoff typically lasts two to three weeks, bringing heavy flows, mud, and debris with it, and it would be dangerous to attempt to wade the river, even if the fish were biting, which they won’t be under those conditions. As the flows begin to settle, though, in early to mid June, water clarity will improve along the edges of the river and fishing those cuts and back eddies of clear water can be exceptionally productive for catching fish that spent the last few weeks battling the raging current.
Silver and bronze: Closer to home, Lake Pueblo is the pride of Southern Colorado and an important jewel in our crown. Located within the Lake Pueblo State Park, the Arkansas River backs up behind its first dam to form the reservoir in our backyard. Constructed in the 1970s for flood control, the resulting reservoir has become a favorite hot spot for locals and anglers from across the state. With over 4,600 surface acres and 60 miles of shoreline, Lake Pueblo is readily accessible by bank anglers along most of its northern and eastern edges. Adventure minded anglers can also access the southern banks by traveling west along Hwy 96 and re-entering the state park from the Lake Pueblo State Wildlife Area. Parking areas and trails within the wildlife area will lead to the water’s edge.
Due to the mild Pueblo climate, Lake Pueblo supports a large number of both cold and warm water species of fish. Rainbow and brown trout, largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass, walleye, crappie, bluegills, and wipers all thrive within the confines of this highland reservoir.