For many anglers, winter is the time to put away the rods and waders for the long snowy months ahead and tune up their skis and boards. There are though, the dedicated few that will endure the frozen eyelets and numb fingertips to reap the rewards of the Arkansas River’s world class winter fishing.
Winter Fly Fishing is personally one of my favorite times of the year to be on the river. The crowds are gone, the water is cold, and if fishing the right spots the fish are hungry and abundant. As the water cools trout will become lethargic, dropping into deep slow runs to conserve energy. For the winter angler, this can be a literal ‘fishing in a barrel’ situation. Trout will school up in these slow pools and you can have hundreds of hungry feeding fish in a very small area.
The general thought process for fly selection in the winter is to go small or go home. The Arkansas River is not this way and that is what I think makes it so much fun. A #14 pheasant tail, prince nymph, hare’s ear or copper john will be eaten by 90% of the fish you catch. I will still fish a #18 zebra midge or similar fly with my nymph rig but typically won’t see near the action with these smaller flies as with the larger #14 fly. I prefer to use flies tied on jig hooks and I set my rig up a little backwards to the traditional ‘big attractor fly first, smaller fly second’ method. I will put my smaller fly as the lead and my larger jig fly second. This allows for a more direct line from my strike indicator to fly and since the jig will ride upside down, it can more easily bounce along the bottom of the river and not get snagged up as much. Depending on water depth, I will run either 1 or 2 BB split shot; there is always a bit of fine tuning with your strike indicator. If you aren’t bouncing bottom at all, go deeper. If you are hanging up every drift, go shallower. This will usually take a few good drifts to dial in.
And then there’s the ice… Shelf ice and slush early in the mornings will be a hindrance for those getting out too early. The early bird does not get the worm when fishing on the Arkansas in the winter. The heat of the day between 11am and 4pm-ish will be your most productive time to catch fish. Getting out too early can expose you to unfishable conditions due to slush and ice flow on the river. Be cautious when walking out onto shelf ice; be aware of ice thickness and water depth below the ice. If the ice shelf is thin enough, I will take the time before I fish to break it away so wading is easier. In my experience, breaking large chunks of ice off the bank and letting it drift through the water I’m about to fish does not negatively affect the fishing.
Overall, Fly Fishing on the Arkansas River is awesome year round! We have such a unique ecosystem here in Chaffee County with our high desert climate. We can ski in the morning and fish in the afternoon. Don’t let the weather, the snow or ice intimidate you. Those fish are still in there and still hungry! Get your puffy on, get out there and get some!