Ark Anglers – July
Over the last ten days, the Arkansas River flows at Wellsville have dropped by 3000 cubic feet per second or 68%. An emerald ribbon again defines the contour of the valley, the raging, turbid maelstrom of snowmelt having run and receded and the peaks now suddenly and simply stone again. One could see this coming. Nevertheless, it has come quickly, all of us scrambling to prepare, the summer fishing season at hand.
This morning the birds began at 4:30. There was light in the east soon after. The cynic in me knows that the days are already growing shorter. The literalist, that the summer has just begun. Perhaps more importantly, at this moment of the year, the realist and the optimist find themselves in agreement, at least on one thing – the Arkansas River fishery is about to go nuts!
At first light this morning, the flow at Wellsville was 1450 cfs. Every tributary gauge was trending downward, though the slopes of most were beginning to curve towards the horizontal. The snowmelt has largely run its course, things are settling into summer. The flow in Hayden Meadows is 335 cfs; it’s about 700 cfs at Granite. The lower half of Bighorn Sheep Canyon remains murkier than the upper, but driving its length yesterday, I would have gladly stopped to fish anywhere from Parkdale up to Salida. Absent significant rains, currently not forecast for at least 12 days, the river now appears as it might in a dream. A very good dream.
Runoff is hard on our fishery. The steep gradient creates high current velocity and tremendous turbulence. The trout struggle with the great physical demands of this while mostly operating on an empty stomach. We were fortunate this year to have a mere 30 days of significant runoff. And thanks to strong hatches this spring, the fish went into the experience in very good condition. Now, hungry and unpressured, their wary instincts in remission, we find that the trout’s urge to feed outweighs its normal skepticism. Call it a seller’s market, the time of year when the largest fish can be found feeding in the most obvious spots.
Fortunate, too, is the fact that this hunger is met with a great surge of available food. Golden and yellow sally stoneflies are crawling to the edges of the river to emerge along the shoreline. The odd and evolving mixture of drakes are apt to be seen now as well. On the upper river, above the Lake Creek confluence, the high elevation emergence of the brachycentrus caddis is underway while in Bighorn Sheep Canyon our low light 4th of July caddis hatch should be gathering strength. The next weeks will see the addition of pale morning duns, tricos, still more caddis, and a diverse windfall of hoppers, beetles, and ants.
At current flows, most fish will still be holding to the edges of the river, escaping the exertion of fighting the current. This makes them easy to locate, from a boat or on foot, and creates a competitive feeding environment as well. As the flows slowly recede over the course of July, additional habitat will become incrementally available, allowing the fish to disperse off the shoreline and away from one another. Wading will become easier and the character of the riverbed will become simpler to read and to fish.
There is no perfect moment to fish the Arkansas River. The many elements of the experience combine differently each day and each year and in each location along the river’s hundred miles of Gold Medal water. As important as the natural processes and components at work along the river corridor are those forces at work within ourselves. Far beyond my expertise, I would simply say of them that good or bad, all things that meet us in life, that demand our attention and thought, are better considered from a boat or knee-deep in a river, or better yet, in that glow and peace that comes after. I wish such moments for all of you in the weeks and months ahead.