Spring Fishing on the Arkansas River

Driving down from Denver, the Arkansas River finally comes into view in Johnson’s Village, the intersection between highway 285 and highway 24. From here you can go upstream into Buena Vista and on towards Leadville, or you can go downstream towards Salida and ultimately to Pueblo. We turned upstream first, and started our day just north of BV. We crossed to the east side of the river and drove the dirt road up to Frog Rock and a forest service campground. The river at this location was running about 250 cubic feet per second, below average for this time of year due to the cold spring and late snowfall Colorado has had. Despite it being low, it was muddy, not ideal for fishing, but we decided to give it a shot anyway.

Around early afternoon the wind picked up, and we headed back to camp for some turkey sandwiches and cold beers. While Jim stretched out in the shade of a pinon pine for an afternoon siesta, I organized our gear then headed off with Dazee to explore. Blustery weather kept us off the water for the rest of the day, and since the wind was still blowing when the sun went down we opted not to have a fire and cooked up some brats with peppers and onions on the camp stove before crawling into the back of the truck.

Saturday morning: coffee, bagels, drive downstream seeking clearer water and hungry fish. In the small town of Howard, just east of Salida, a dirt road crosses the river and runs downstream, leading to a couple areas of public river access. While rigging my rod before the short walk down to the river, I noticed a small blue winged olive, a type of mayfly, land on my hand; so there was my answer to the question, “what should I tie on?” After fishing for a few hours, the wind again blew us off the water. No matter, we decided to take advantage of this area’s other incredible aquatic resource – the natural hot springs. Back to Buena Vista, left towards Cottonwood Pass, right turn into the parking lot for Cottonwood Hot Springs. With 4 or 5 pools, all different temperatures, there is no better place to escape a spring flurry. 

Sufficiently warmed and relaxed, we headed to Hecla Junction for some evening fishing and, hopefully, a campsite. Hecla is the take-out for Browns Canyon, one of the most rafted stretches of whitewater in the country. The accompanying campground during the summer whitewater season is always packed. As it was not yet high season on the river I foolishly thought we would have no problem getting a camp spot, even if we were arriving in the evening. We had to drive around the campground twice before we saw it, the last open spot. Camping at Hecla is a far cry from wilderness camping, there is no running water or trash cans, but there are plenty of RVs, and no trees between sites. What it lacks in primitive charm, it makes up for in location, and in no time we were dressed in waders and hiking down a nearly deserted trail along the river. The rest of the weekend was spent camped at Hecla and fishing the trail along the river. The fishing wasn’t all-time, but we caught a few and I went home with that tired yet rejuvenated feeling that always comes from time on the river.

Go Here:

Buena Vista: For free, primitive BLM camping with superb river access, head east on E Arkansas River Street, then north on County Road 371 (N Colorado Ave). Continue on 371, which crosses the river just south of a railroad bridge. Look for primitive sites around the intersection with 375, about a quarter-mile north of the railroad bridge. Both the Arkansas River and Fourmile Creek offer excellent fishing opportunities just minutes from the campsites, if conditions allow. Google Maps link.

Howard: From town, head east on County Road 4 (Howard Creek Road) to cross the river, then turn either north or south on County Road 41 after crossing the railroad tracks. Both directions will lead to some public river access, but there is also a fair amount of private land here, so pay attention to posted signs. 

Salida: From town, hop on Highway 285 heading north. After about 10 miles, turn east down County Road 194. The Hecla Junction Campground is at the end of this road, at the completion of Brown's Canyon along the Arkansas. As I mentioned, this site gets a lot of play during the summer months, so plan on arriving early to ensure a spot. Camping is $18/night and primitive. Trails wind in both directions along the river from the campground, with fishing opportunities abound.

Eat These:

Turkey Sandwiches - Simple, easy, and deliciously satisfying when an early afternoon windstorm blows you off the river. Wrap turkey some greens and mayonnaise up in a tortilla or squish it between two pieces of your favorite wheat bread.

Brats w/ Peppers and Onions - Another camp classic. Maybe not the most healthy, but it's a simple meal that warms the soul after the sun sets. Bonus, the leftovers taste even better over some eggs come breakfast-time.

Campfire Chilaquiles - See this blog post for a detailed recipe on this less traditional, but fully delicious campfire breakfast. 

Do This:

Get the Local Lowdown - Stop in the local fly shops in Salida, Buena Vista, or Leadville. The good folks that run these shops fish the Arkansas constantly, and are usually happy to share what's been working. Buy a few flies to fill any voids in your box.

Crimp Your Barbs - The fish will thank you, your fishing buddies will thank you, your dog may even thank you (I'd rather not talk about that last one...)

Go Slow - Take time to notice what's around you, what insects are buzzing about near the river, the color and temperature of the river, and the clouds building off in the distance.

Not That:

Forget Your Down Jacket - When the sun went down, I dawned all the layers and wrapped myself up in a MS018 Utility Blanket. I longingly thought of my MSW001 Down Jacket hanging uselessly at home in my closet. Avoid the suck and bring yours.

Put All Your Eggs in One Basket - Spring recreation in Colorado always involves meteorological uncertainty. You just might get rained off the route, or blown off the water. Don't let this ruin your day! Have a backup plan. There's always another way to enjoy the RIMBY landscape, whether that means soaking in a hot spring, exploring another tiny mountain town, or just sipping beers in the car at the campsite, watching the storm pass and playing cards.

Recommended Gear:

I put on my MSW003 Fleece Full Zip Friday morning when I was leaving the house, and I didn’t take it off until we returned Sunday night. The high neck was great for beating the wind, and when the sun went down, and I was reaching into the freezing river to release fish, the long sleeves with the thumb holes added some welcome extra warmth for my hands.

Jim’s layering scheme changed with the weather (that is to say, every 10 minutes or so). He doubled up with the MS017 Standard ¼ Zip Fleece and the MS024 Thermal Henley when the wind picked up, and both fit neatly under a heavy wool sweater after the sun went down.

Field Agent Ashley Hillard is an all-around badass. Find her tossing ties on the river, carving lines on the slopes, or just kicking back with her mountain pup, Dazee. Follow her on insta to see where she heads next!


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