After a strong winter like we’ve enjoyed in 2018-19, the topic of runoff and snowmelt is a common point of conversation. With impressive snow totals in the peaks, the Arkansas could put on an impressive display.
Now, even in a dry year like 2018, the Ark still needs to be approached with caution and preparation, she is a force of nature.
When the river rises above 1,000 to 1,200 cfs (cubic feet per second), it commands a whole new level of respect, no matter what your favorite form of aquatic recreation.
This year suggests it will easily be double that or more by the second week in June.
Somewhat contrary to the gleeful tone the boating aficionados have for the coming surge of snowmelt, the angling community treats it more like a war game.
We gather information on snowpack, stream flows and weather patterns, in an effort to divine some pattern, the hidden laws of a probable outcome.
All in an effort to understand what all of the coming water might do to the fishing. Then we plan our excursions accordingly, guided by a combination of facts and intuition.
Some of these are easy to grasp. Snow below 11,000 feetoften melts before Memorial Day, providing a substantial surge in the flows of the Arkansas.
For the river to really come up, the sun has to be pretty far north before the north-facing slopes can get enough solar gain to melt. It also takes time for the nights to become warm enough at 12,000-plus feet to keep the remaining snow from refreezing each night.
Even in our current, seemingly erratic climate pattern, these things generally don’t happen until early June.
Throw in the uncertainties of the mysterious pace of trans-mountain water coming through tunnels from the Colorado’s tributaries and bound for the cities, and you have a daunting month-long puzzle of where to fish.
Even more importantly for a guide, where to fish with your guests safely. After “There’s one right there” and “Set the hook,” the phrase “You might not want to step there” is the most uttered by a guide at runoff.
With rising waters comes murky or muddy waters, restricted points of access, potentially lethal current velocities and an assortment of debris scoured off the riverbanks, adding to the combat aspect of being out on the water. Once, a dead cow rolled up out of the river a few feet away, scaring the bejeezus out of me.
While some choose to stay away from fishing or at least fishing the river for the duration of runoff, there are many options to consider.
Lakes and ponds are usually free from the vagaries of spring runoff and provide safe haven for those unwilling or unable to risk moving water, but needing to wet a line.
There are a dozen or more USFS or state waters in this valley that provide some of the best stillwater opportunities around. Insects like damselflies and mayflies begin to emerge at this time, presenting some dynamic action.
In addition, we have a multitude of creeks and tributaries to the Arkansas to stalk plentiful, if smaller, trout in waters that will clear sooner than the river.
Even on the Arkansas herself, there are still plentiful, available fish out during the higher flows.
The bugs they eat are still hatching, the trout are still hungry and a well-placed fly will still spark a response.
With an eye towards safety, there are some great experiences to be had fishing during high water.
Here are a few tips for being successful and safe in the coming month and a half.
• Stay out of the water as much as possible.
I prefer to wet wade at this time; it is safer than taking a swim in waders and keeps me in shallow water.
• Err on the side of caution when deciding how you’ll access the river. NEVER step into water where you can’t see the bottom.
• Carry a wading/walking staff.
• Stick to the edges like the trout have to, that is where food and safety are.
• Keep an eye out for debris in the water approaching from upstream.
• Keep your casts short and tight to the bank, where the clarity is better.
• Use heavier tippets and leaders to help stop and turn fish out of fast water. 3x rather than 5x tippets.
Using a short dry/dropper rig with large flies is very productive and minimizes getting the flies hung up on roots and such.
I like using fly sets like a #10 Chubby Chernobyl with a #Tungsten Pheasant Tail on a 12-15-inch dropper. The promise of a larger meal is easier for the trout to see and want to eat.
If your flies get hung up, break the line and retie, rather than risk retrieving them.
Generally, the upper sections of the Ark are the most productive and safest during this window.
The area above the Colo. 82–Twin Lakes junction is often earlier to clear up and easy to navigate/fish from the bank.
With plentiful hatches of spring insects like caddis, mayflies and stoneflies, trout will be lurking and feeding along the grassy banks of Hayden Meadows. Be safe and I will hope to see you out here.
Andrews is head guide for ArkAnglers fly fishing guide service and an internationally recognized artist.