The Arkansas River Valley 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.
To our west the flows of a millennia of Arkansas River currents cut 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. With the main forage food source being shad, crustaceans, and each other, fish in this reservoir grow quickly and the physical features of the underwater landscape make them predictable and vulnerable to a well placed lure.
Cascading cliff faces, rocky points, clay banks, and plenty of brush choked creek channels and coves ensure that anglers will find what they’re looking for no matter what techniques they elect to employ and the fish are usually quick to attack typical lures and baits that are dropped into the right areas.
Smallmouth bass, or bronze backs as they’re sometimes called, are prolific throughout the reservoir and large silvery wipers and walleyes offer hard fighting challenges for those who target them. Jewels of the water, these warm water species offer great sporting action for anglers of all ages and can be reached from both the bank or by boat.
Boat ramps are located at both the north and south shore marinas, and all gas powered craft must launch from the marinas and be inspected for zebra mussels prior to launch and also when pulling out.
Boats certainly make the best reservoir honey holes easier to reach and they make traveling around from place to place much faster for most anglers. Despite their advantages, though, boats aren’t an absolute necessity for anglers on Lake Pueblo and shore anglers can find plenty of success by identifying key fishing structure and using the right lures or baits.
Hidden in the deep, fast runs of the Arkansas tail water a big trout lifts itself just enough to snatch a morsel from the current before submerging once again to blend perfectly with the moss colored rocks that make up the riverbed. The rainbow trout is a staple in Colorado and much of the American continent, so it is no surprise that the crown jewel of this Southern Colorado crown would be the flashing colors of the beautiful rainbow trout.
Below the dam at Lake Pueblo the Arkansas River continues a journey that will eventually take it through Kansas and into Arkansas, where it will merge with the Mississippi River and end up in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a journey that will make the river unrecognizable at times, alternating between dried mud flats to raging currents as water is pulled and reintroduced to the historic riverbed at various points along its route.
The tail water fishery between the dam and the confluence with Fountain Creek in Pueblo, though, returns the river to its original glory. With flows that are dictated by agricultural needs downstream, the tail water can range from under 100 cubic feet per second in the winter to over 2000 CFS in the spring and summer.
Previously known as the best kept winter fishing secret in Colorado, the word is out about the merits of the tail water and it’s a rare day when anglers won’t find company on this stretch of river. Fed by bottom discharge gates at the dam, the river’s temperature maintains a steady temperature, which promotes excellent hatches of insects all year ‘round and contributes to the rapid growth of the rainbows, cutbows, and brown trout that live here.
Predominately a rainbow and cutbow trout fishery, with an occasional big brown mixed in, the tail water provides anglers with several miles of public access and exceptional fishing opportunities throughout the year.
Bait fishing is allowed over most of the tail water, with a short portion, between the Valco bridge and the Pueblo Nature Center being designated for artificial flies and lures only.
The jewels of Southern Colorado fishing sparkle within the crown of the Arkansas River Valley and whether it’s the gold of the river itself, the bronze of big smallmouth bass, the silver of wipers, largemouth, and crappies, or the rainbow colored crown jewel, the river and its impoundments offer spectacular fishing opportunities throughout the year.
It is the lifeblood of the valley and its riches are many. For anglers in Southern Colorado, the Arkansas is a treasure trove of jewels waiting to be discovered.
Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman who also enjoys writing about his adventures. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
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