Salida • Late Tuesday afternoon, clouds and cold fell into the Arkansas River Valley and threatened to blow the fly-fishermen off the water.
Instead, it brought mayflies. Trout rose to feast on a blizzard of blue-winged olives. This is not unusual on the Arkansas in April.
What was unusual for the Arkansas was the size of the fish. The trout are noticeably larger — even as the statewide drought continues.
“The Arkansas is somewhat of an anomaly,” said Doug Krieger, senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The drought is a problem.
Except with the Arkansas River fishery. In some ways, the relentless drought actually is boosting its growth from Leadville to Cañon City.
I always thought God smiled on the Arkansas. Now there’s proof.
A unique combination of factors, during a historic drought, is improving an already unique fishery. Fish are growing, in size and numbers, even as the snowpack and water reserves are not.
“It seems counterintuitive because of the drought,” said Rod Patch, who has owned the ArkAnglers fly shop since 1995. “But when you think about it, it makes sense.”
Start with the spring runoff, or lack of. The runoff that often extends from mid-May into August wasn’t as severe in 2012. The native brown trout weren’t forced to the edges, and finding a proper meal wasn’t as difficult. Feeding fish are growing fish. Ever wonder why there are so many fish in the Arkansas — but so few longer than 14 inches? The heavy runoff is one factor that can limit their potential for growth.
“Brown trout want to be couch potatoes,” Krieger said.
Studies indicate the population of brown trout longer than 14 inches experienced a 430 percent growth from 2011 to 2012, he said. In 2011, research near Wellsville revealed 11.9 trout of that size per square acre. In 2012, that number increased to 51.
Sections of the river showed upward of 5,000 fish per square mile.
“That’s pretty much a high (mark) on the Arkansas,” Krieger said.
This sort of boom during a drought is not unprecedented. The 2002 drought contributed to an 800 percent growth in the population of brown trout longer than 14 inches.
“The number of fish bigger than 14 inches has increased significantly,” Patch said.
Some of the improvements are a result of man’s helping hand.
Parks and Wildlife last year reintroduced salmonflies to the Arkansas. The 2- to 3-inch bug is a virtual three-course meal for trout. The state plans to continue the spread of the salmonfly this year.
Water-treatment measures also have improved water quality, which has led to more abundant bug life.
On Wednesday in the lower basin near Howard, fish were rising to BWOs from 2 to 4 p.m. There was great success with subsurface patterns (No. 18 RS2, No. 20 Barr’s Emerger).
“We’re seeing changes in the bugs,” Krieger said. “Because of the changes in the water (quality), bugs that couldn’t make it before now can make it.”
The trout population is changing as well. While the river is dominated by brown trout, the goal is to have rainbows account for
25 percent of the population.
To achieve that number, the state is stocking more and sometimes bigger rainbows. Below Salida, rainbows now account for roughly 20 percent of the trout population, Krieger said.
The knock against the Arkansas, if there was one, was the lack of large trout.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” Patch said, “But we should start seeing 20- to 24-inch rainbows (in coming years).”
This is not to celebrate the drought; our waters desperately need a proper rain dance. The Yampa River could face late-summer closures if conditions don’t improve. Officials said there has been fish loss in Grape Creek, which runs into the Arkansas. Beaver Creek, below Skaguay Reservoir, could face restrictions due to the ongoing drought.
And the Arkansas is not immune. Warmer temperatures do, in fact, boost fish growth — to a point. But there is the potential for fish loss when water temps hit 77 degrees.
“It’s like a night in Tijuana,” Krieger said. “Everything’s good until you die.”
When we left the river Tuesday and returned to reality, the fish were on midges and another BWO hatch.
The reality is, despite the drought, the Arkansas River fishery is as good as it has been — if not better.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports (and sometimes outdoors) columnist for The Gazette. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).