Tips for Fishing Freestone Rivers and a Guide to the Upper Arkansas and Colorado River
Colorado is home to two iconic North American rivers, the Arkansas and Colorado River. Many anglers gravitate to the numerous tailwater streams in the state for a variety of reasons, but the freestone rivers such as the Arkansas and Colorado shouldn’t be forgotten. While their conditions are volatile and less predictable than tailwaters, fishing these rivers generally provides serenity and highly productive outings. Some may argue that a trout is a trout despite the river it resides, but we’d argue that fly fishing strategy varies as you go from tailwaters to freestones. In celebration of our release of the Upper Colorado River and Upper Arkansas River reports and forecasts, we would like to highlight some basic freestone fly fishing strategies as well as background information on the two sections.
The health of a freestone river is largely controlled by precipitation and snow melt. A year heavy in moisture whether it be rain or snow will result in higher flows, lower water temperatures and therefore, a healthier river. Conversely, a dry year, one like we just had, will result in low flows and high water temperatures, both of which can be detrimental to the trout population. Ultimately, you can’t control the flows on freestones and that can make important components such as hatches and water clarity less predictable.
Whether you’ve been fishing for one year or your entire life, you’ve likely heard the phrase “match the hatch”. Not to say that matching the hatch isn’t important, because we believe it is. It’s just less important on freestones. Compared to the controlled environment of tailwater rivers, hatches on rivers such as the Colorado and Arkansas are typically less predictable. The resident trout of Colorado tailwaters such as Cheesman Canyon and Taylor River are incredibly picky and difficult to fool. Freestone trout on the other hand are much more opportunistic. Dry flies can be large, messy, and covered in foam, it doesn’t typically matter (think of large attractor flies and large stonefly/hopper patterns when you’re shopping flies for your next trip). When it comes to nymphs, we generally carry a small selection of flies and focus on search patterns. These patterns can imitate a variety of insects. Hare’s Ears, Pheasant Tails, Prince Nymphs, and Copper Johns are some of our favorite search patterns for freestones. Each of these patterns can imitate insects such as caddis, stoneflies and mayflies. The one detail however, that may take your outing from average to incredible, is color.
As we stated earlier, flows can’t be controlled and that can lead to ever changing water clarity. The general rule of thumb is if the flows are high, the clarity is low, and if the flows are low, the clarity is high. The spectrum for us runs from gin clear to chocolate milk. So why does this matter? Water clarity will tell you a lot about the color fly you should use. During runoff or periods with off colored water, flies that contrast the chocolatey water work the best. Red, black, white, purple, chartreuse (light green), all seem to be effective colors in off colored water. On the other hand, clear water generally will make the trout more selective, so more neutral colored flies typically do the trick. An easy tip to lock down color is to use a double nymph setup with two different colors of the same fly. This will help you identify the hot color.
If you’re not sold on fishing freestones, you can stop reading and divert to our tailwater reports. However, if less crowded water and eager trout intrigue you, continue reading for a little background info on the upper Arkansas River and upper Colorado River to get you started on your next fly fishing adventure.
Upper Arkansas River:
The upper section of the Arkansas River is a freestone river sourced from snowmelt in the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges near Leadville, Colorado. The upper section is arguably the most wade friendly section of the river with many access points running from Leadville through Salida. This fishery has been a major focus for improvement over the past decade as historical fish populations were impacted by whirling disease and the heavy mining activity that occurred in Leadville. Luckily, due to the efforts of trout activist groups, the fishery continues to improve year-over-year and has become a fun and productive stretch to fish. Brown and rainbow trout are the primary residents with brown trout making up 75% of the trout population. Average trout sizes range from 12” – 16” with a max of 20”. Regulations dictate that only artificial flies and lures may be used. Depending on the section of the river, bag limits vary from 1 – 4 trout over 12” with the exception of rainbow trout. All rainbow trout must be released.
The Upper Arkansas River is best fished from late spring through fall. Low flows and ice make this stretch difficult to fish during the winter months. The river yields long runs and riffles as it winds through open meadows from Leadville to Twin Lakes Reservoir. From Twin Lakes to Salida, the river goes through mountainous terrain providing deep pools, runs and pockets. Anglers can count on experiencing the standard Colorado hatches with midges hatching throughout the year, Mayflies in the late spring through fall, and caddis and stoneflies in the summer. River flows are typically lower the closer you are to Leadville and increase the further south you go towards Buena Vista. Knowing this, fishing a dry dropper rig is the go-to method when fishing near Leadville and a mixture of dry dropper and nymphing rigs are the effective setups when fishing near Buena Vista.
Upper Colorado River:
The Upper Colorado stretches from Lake Granby to Kremmling, CO offering diverse water features, beautiful landscape and an abundant wildlife population. This section earned its Gold Medal status for its plethora of medium to large sized brown and rainbow trout and can be fished year round. The upper section is similar to the Middle Colorado in that it gives off that big water feel. That isn't to say that it is terribly technical. However, once you get to Gore Canyon near Kremmling you're looking at class IV and V rapids so be careful! By and large, this section is fairly wide and mellow with a gradual flow.
Fishing on this smooth and meandering section of the Colorado is great for anglers of all skill sets. Trout here are not nearly as selective as those in tailwaters. Searcher nymph patterns and medium to large dry flies are generally a great option. However, as the season shifts towards winter, nymphing will be the primary mode of fishing. Feature wise, this section provides everything from shallow riffles and slow runs to deep pools. Nymphing and streamer fishing are both effective, but it is most known for its summer dry fly fishing. During this time, there is an abundance of PMD, Caddis and Stoneflies. However, the Salmon fly hatch is arguably what entices anglers the most. During this time, we recommend a dry dropper rig to cover all fronts.