The Arkansas River is an outstanding river flowing for over 300 miles through Colorado. The river is located a short distance southwest of central Colorado just east of the continental divide. Its headwaters are found north of Leadville where it gathers runoff from the surrounding Sawatch Mountains. Flowing for approximately 100 miles southeast, it passes Mount Elbert and then the towns of Buena Vista, Salida and Coaldale. Turning east at Coaldale, the Arkansas flows for approximately 200 more miles passing the towns of Canon City, Pueblo, La Junta and Lamar before reaching the Kansas state line. There are a few area’s along the Arkansas River that have special regulations.
The headwaters of the Arkansas are beautiful with huge surrounding mountains. Driving on Route 24 along the headwaters provides a spectacular view. The mileage above Buena Vista is smaller but the river gains size and volume quickly as it nears the towns of Buena Vista and Salida.
Buena Vista to Canon City
The most heavily fished and popular section of the Arkansas is from Buena Vista to Canon City. This section of the river, which is approximately 75 miles long, has beautiful pocket water, pools, riffles and runs holding an excellent population of browns and a good population of rainbows. The river averages from 70-100 feet wide in most areas with boulders, bends and deep seams creating superb habitat for the trout that reside here. Trout in the Arkansas average approximately 13-15 inches although fish to 18 inches and better are not that uncommon. Route 24 parallels the Arkansas from its headwaters to just south of Buena Vista where Route 285 then parallels the river for several miles before Route 291 then parallels it to Salida. From Salida to the Kansas border, Route 50 parallels the river. Look for side roads where access can’t be found from the more major highways.
Follow the roads that parallel the river and look for likely areas. There are many access points along the Arkansas River, which is one of its great attributes. Be careful wading as the river can be swollen at times especially from late May to early July when the river receives a healthy supply of runoff. The rivers bottom can also be tricky in areas as boulders and an uneven bottom could cause a slip or two if caution is not taken.
Salida is a popular area of the Arkansas, which lies between Buena Vista and Canon City. You will find a beautiful selection of water with pockets and riffles to a few runs and pools. This is a good starting point but always keep in mind that there is well over a hundred miles of fishable and productive water on this river.
Traveling east on Route 50 from Canon City you will reach Pueblo after a drive of approximately 35 miles. Below Pueblo Reservoir you will find a tail-water section of the Arkansas that holds a good population of browns and rainbows. The hatches are good especially the blue-winged olives that come off during the late fall, winter and early spring.
Hatches on the Arkansas are very good. The caddis hatch that occurs during the spring is one of the most prolific in the west. Blinding numbers of these flies come off and cover the river. This is a popular time as many fish come to the surface to feed on the caddis. Blue-winged olives and pale morning duns are the most prolific and productive mayfly hatches on the river. Stoneflies and other caddis also stir the river’s surface when the conditions are right. The huge golden stonefly hatch usually occurs during the runoff period but can still provide some dry fly action in areas of slower water or along the banks.
Streamers and nymphs also produce very well. They fish exceptionally well along the banks when the river is high from recent rain or runoff. Use some split shot and a long leader to get your nymphs down. A sink tip line will help to get your streamers along the bottom and fished properly.
If you’re looking to plan a trip to Colorado or just looking for a fun fly fishing vacation check out the Arkansas River. Beautiful trout, diversity, character and easy access make the Arkansas River productive for both advanced and novice anglers. Colorado Springs and Pueblo provide the closest commercial airports. Buena Vista can be reached from Denver within about 2 hours by car.