As the leaves change, the temperatures plummet and we all retreat from the cold, Lake Pueblo State Park looks quite different in the winter than most people know it during the summer.
The days of crowds, boat noise and full campgrounds are a recent memory.
All that remains is the natural resources and the fraction of the summer crowds.
The reduction in people doesn’t mean that there is a reduction in quality angling experiences though.
Winter fly fishing on the Arkansas River is a little known activity except to the diehards amongst us.
With consistent hatches, small crowds and level flows, the tail waters section at Lake Pueblo is one of Colorado’s best kept secrets.
One of the biggest reasons that the Arkansas River produces some truly trophy sized fish is the recent in stream habitat improvements done as part of the Legacy Project.
The Arkansas River Legacy Project is a partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, two local Trout Unlimited chapters, the City of Pueblo and an independent consultant.
The goal is to provide new high quality trout structure and maintain previous efforts, as well as provide and maintain new accesses.
As is evident by the size and quality of fish caught this summer, the project has been a success.
The hope is that these structures will continue to provide a home and habitat for the trout, improving the fishery.
“The Arkansas River below Lake Pueblo Dam has become a winter fly fishing hot spot since completion of the Arkansas River Legacy Project,” said Alex Zipp, owner of The Drift Fly Shop in Pueblo.
While a guided trip may help land you some nicer fish, the average person with some fly fishing experience can walk out on the river and have a great chance at a trophy trout. These structures help the fish find food and cover, two factors that greatly improve the overall fishery health and allow the fish to grow to great sizes.
Another one of the biological factors to the success of the Arkansas River fishery is the availability of food for the fish.
Whether it is above or below water, the hatches on the Arkansas are consistent throughout the year.
Being that the Pueblo Dam releases water stored at the bottom of the reservoir, temperatures remain fairly even throughout the whole winter.
Not only does this keep the bugs hatching near daily, but it also makes sure the fish don’t have the stress of temperature change that other less regulated fisheries can provide.
The improvements mentioned above are also helping the fish with the food, providing feeding lanes and water movement to help funnel in bugs.
The brown trout and rainbow trout that are found in the waters use this source year round, and fisherman should use it as well to help target feeding fish.
With all the biological factors that can be found at other rivers, what makes the Arkansas River in Pueblo so special?
One of the biggest things is the ease of access.
Other similar river systems, like the famed Cheeseman Canyon section of the South Platte and the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir, require a hike in or a long drive out of town.
The tailwaters at Pueblo Dam don’t require either of those trips.
“There’s food, drink and heat within feet of the water,” said Ben Wurster, owner of Steel City Anglers in Pueblo.
Whether it is your car, conveniently parked yards away from your fishing spot, or at one of the local businesses, like the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo, your fishing spot can be steps away from the convenience of modern living.
The Steel City Anglers shop, which resides at the Nature Center downstream of the dam, is a modified vending machine, allowing you to pick up the hot flies or replace a lost piece of equipment while still in your waders.
The Nature Center also features the Coyote Grill, so when the lunch hunger pains hit you can grab some grub while watching the water from your table.
With all these conveniences just steps away from the water, winter fishing on the Arkansas can make for an enjoyable overall experience.
On your fishing trip knowing the river is always a plus, but having the right equipment is the biggest thing to prepare for.
The best thing to start with is the clothing. Pueblo temperatures stay fairly mild throughout the winter, so dressing in layers is essential. It is not uncommon on those warmer days to shed most outer layers and be fishing in your base layer.
The temperatures and, especially, the wind can change rapidly, so be prepared for all weather possibilities.
Next is the fly rod itself.
A good five weight is the best bet for the tailwaters from the dam. With limited structure in the water muscling fish out from snags and submerged trees is more uncommon than most places, but the water can be swift in spots. A five weight will allow you to handle the larger fish found here as well. Finally and probably most importantly is the fly selection.
Baetis and Midge hatches are the primary food source for the fish, so a variety of these flies will be a great starting point.
The early winter months can also see some Blue Wing Olives, Tricos, and Caddis still lingering, so stock up on a variety of sizes and types. It is never a bad idea to have a variety of egg and streamer patterns as well, as those days without hatches can be turned around with some attractor patterns.
Being a state park ranger, I would be remiss to not mention the rules and regulations of the water we patrol.
From the Pueblo Dam downstream to the Valco Bridge all normal fishing regulations apply.
From the Valco Bridge downstream to Pueblo Boulevard the regulations change to artificial flies and lures only, with all fish above 16 inches to be released back into the water immediately. This is to help keep the populations healthy and allow the larger fish to be enjoyed by other anglers as well.
A valid fishing license is required for all persons 16 years of age and older and a valid state parks pass is required on all vehicles entering a pay area at Lake Pueblo State Park. Passes can be purchased at our entrance stations and the visitor center, and licenses can be purchased at the visitor center and the wildlife area 11 office off of reservoir road.
Hopefully this article will get some of you to brave the elements and head out this winter.
When you combine all of the elements that make the tailwaters of Pueblo Dam what it is, a unique stream arises.
While it may not get the recognition that other world renowned fisheries that reside here in the state get, the Arkansas River is a diamond in the rough.
The passionate people and avid anglers that call this place their home waters are rewarded with excellent year round fishing.
If you see a range out on patrol say hello, as we are out enjoying the place we work just as you are enjoying your day on the water.
Tight lines everyone!
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