Flyfishermen gather along the banks of the Arkansas River from April right on through Mother's Day, taking advantage of one of Colorado's most prolific bug hatches. (June 2006)
Bill Edrington says that the famous Arkansas River Mother's Day caddis hatch is a misnomer, because if you wait until May 14 to start fishing the Arkansas, chances are you will have missed most of the event. This hatch usually begins in April, leading Edrington -- owner of the Royal Gorge Anglers shop in CaÃ±on City -- to call it the Arkansas' Tax Day caddis hatch.
Alas, traditions die hard. This annual spring event has attained legendary status as the Mothers' Day hatch, attracting enthusiastic flyfishermen from virtually every part of the civilized world. The Arkansas River from CaÃ±on City upstream to Buena Vista is home to this phenomenal caddis hatch -- an event celebrated in Salida by the annual Caddis Festival.
In March, emerging blue-winged olives serve as the harbinger of bigger things. Sometime in early to mid-April, as the water temperature creeps past the magical 50-degree mark, small dark caddis mystically appear near CaÃ±on City. As the hatch increases in intensity, the caddis move upstream, bringing Arkansas trout boiling to the surface and dismissing all inhibitions as they gorge on zillions of Brachycentrus occidentalis. At times, the caddis appear in blizzard-like swarms that have literally left anglers with blurry vision and made it difficult for them to breathe.
Weather conditions dictate the rate of hatch advance upstream, averaging 7 to 8 miles per day under normal conditions. The hatch continues until spring run-off blows out the Arkansas sometime later in May. (Another reason you don't want to wait until Mother's Day to fish here.)
During the hatch, the Arkansas may be flowing quite strongly as run-off nears, and wading can be difficult to hazardous.
Thousand of tiny rivulets originating in the high mountain snowpack of Colorado's Continental Divide race down mountain slopes near Leadville to create America's fourth-longest river. The 13,000- and 14,000-foot snow-clad peaks of the Collegiate, Sawatch, Mosquito and Sangre de Cristo ranges provide clear, free-flowing water for the Arkansas' 300-mile run through Colorado. The river's initial 150-mile segment, from its alpine origins to the city of Pueblo, supports a brown trout paradise complemented by some rainbows and cutthroats.
The upper Arkansas is also popular among whitewater enthusiasts. Fortunately, rafters and fishermen have established a cordial relationship, and anglers come here prepared for midday "rubber hatches."
Seriously poisoned by tailings from the region's historic mining industry, the Arkansas recovered following a 1993 Superfund cleanup that in turn led to healthier, longer-lived trout. Today it supports some 4,000 trout per river mile. Clean, healthy water and a strong insect forage base produce fish averaging 12 to 14 inches, with some exceeding 16 inches.
The Arkansas wasn't always a prolific caddis water. Upstream water-storage managers were encouraged to maintain natural water flow levels in the river by increasing springtime flows to scour the river bottom, and then reduce flows in summer. They agreed to this plan and, as a result, caddis and other insects proliferated.
About 60 percent of the river from Salida to CaÃ±on City is open to the public, with the remaining 40 percent in private control. Most public access points are well marked.
EQUIPMENT & TECHNIQUES
The Arkansas' currents can be quite strong, and its rocks slippery. Wading staffs are common and felt-soled shoes are necessary. Although lightweight waders will work, I sometimes wear neoprene and carry raingear to defeat unpredictable weather.
I prefer a 9-foot, 4-weight rod for dry flies and a 5-weight rod for sub-surface fishing. A 9-foot leader tapered to 4x or 5x connected to a floating line is adequate.
Large and small rocks dot much of this river. Short, accurate casts are the norm. You'll often find fish in amazingly shallow water because heavy flows drive them from central currents toward the edges. Use stealth in approaching and fishing for these wild trout. They will flee at the first sign of danger.
Successful anglers fish all life cycle stages of the caddis. The larvae attach themselves to sticks and rocks, and unless found drifting freely in the current, are difficult trout fodder. Imitating their pupa stage is probably the most effective way to fish this emergence. Cast upstream and dead-drift the wet to below your position. As it swings in the downstream current, lift the fly to the surface to simulate a rising pupa. This technique will work until the trout shift focus to the adults.
Colorado fly-fishing expert Marty Bartholomew suggests fishing spent caddis patterns early in the morning if fish are actively surface-feeding, probably on dead caddis from the previous night. If there is no surface activity, morning fishing should begin with a No. 14 adult caddis pattern as indicator and a deep beadhead pupa pattern dropper.
When you notice surface disturbances, exchange your deep pupa for a shallow-emerging pupa pattern. Slashing, noisy strikes signal another change to dry adult caddis imitators.
Normally, the hatch will begin just before noon and last into mid-afternoon, when the fish become sated and fishing slows significantly. Don't head for the local bars just yet. As the evening sun disappears, female caddis come out to deposit their eggs, sparking a second feeding binge. I seldom impart movement to drifting adult patterns except in late evening. Drifting or skittering dark caddis ties produce superb results until dark.
The adage that most fishermen stand where they should fish holds true for this river: Seek more isolated portions of the public-access points and focus on the oxygenated holds and runs among shoreline rocks and edges.
I favor fishing a mile or two ahead of the densest hatch. Fishing behind the hatch requires enticing fish that have been educated. Fishing ahead puts you in front of trout that are hungrily anticipating the caddis and more inclined to feed on imitations.
Whatever you do, avoid dense, blizzard hatches. It's impossible to see your fly amongst the naturals and unlikely a trout will select your fly with so many bugs on the water. It is also difficult to enjoy fishing with insects exploring every orifice of your body.
Popular nymph patterns are Olive Hare's Ears and Breadcrust. La Fontaine's Deep Sparkle Pupa and a Bead Head Caddis Pupa, for fishing prior to the e
mergence. Imitate rising pupa with Emergent Sparkle or Bubble Caddis pupae. Perhaps the most popular adult pattern is Don Puterbaugh's Black Foam Caddis -- essentially a black foam-bodied Elk Hair Caddis. Standard Elk Hair Caddis (chocolate or black) or Goddard's Caddis are also good choices. Larry Kingrey's Egg Layer Caddis is best for late evenings when the females return to the water to lay their eggs.
Fly shops in CaÃ±on City, Salida and Buena Vista will have up-to-the-minute advice on hatch progress, fly patterns, techniques, public access and regulations. Bill Edrington at Royal Gorge Anglers in CaÃ±on City, at 1-888-994-6743; and Rod Felt or Greg Patch at Arkanglers in Salida, at (719) 539-4223, have been fishing and guiding along the Arkansas for years. Arkanglers also has a Buena Vista shop: Call (719) 395-1796).