For a growing number of anglers, the more remote areas of the Upper Arkansas have become their new favorite source of fishing adventure.
This is big country, encompassing portions of the Sawatch, Sangre de Cristo and Mosquito ranges. Three national forests, three wilderness areas and miles of tributaries of the Arkansas leading to plentiful lakes at their headwaters provide limitless opportunities for anglers.
Because of the logging and mining history of the valley, many of these waters have excellent access for SUV and off-highway-vehicle anglers. Miles of road parallel the creeks and lead to parking for short hikes to lakes.
Others require a measure of “sweat equity” to reach and fish and will test anyone’s conditioning. From a 10-minute stroll off a paved road to a 10-mile one-way backpack, these experiences are open to all. Leaving the familiar environs of the valley floor behind, solitude and natural beauty serve to empty the ashtrays of the mind, clearing the way for thoughts of more important prospects, like catching trout.
What you’ll catch:
It is up here that you will find the greenback cutthroat, Colorado’s state fish and the original native trout of the Arkansas. Along with the eastern brook trout, they populate the streams above 9,000 feet. The cutts are easily recognized by the bright crimson markings under their lower jaw and dark spotting, while the brookies, a char not a true trout, have light spots on a dark background.
Higher, above 11,000 feet, the cutts are joined by exotic species like grayling and golden trout in some of our lakes. Every 2 years, 1-inch fingerlings are planted by air to ensure healthy populations in those lakes that will support trout. Even though they grow slowly at these elevations, trout of impressive size can be found.
The thrill of a 3-pound cutt coming up through 10 feet of crystal-clear water to inhale your caddis dry is one of the best moments in fishing!
How and where you’ll catch on streams:
This is the way fly fishing was intended to be, a great place to introduce youngsters and new anglers to the sport. With the often brushy and tight casting quarters, most anglers prefer a shorter 7-7½-foot 3- or 4-weight rod/line. A 6-7½-foot 4x leader is all you’ll need but bring a spool of 5x and some floatant.
The stream fish are enthusiastic participants in our game, rising with abandon to a variety of patterns like the Royal Wulff, Parachute Adams, or Elk Hair Caddis in 14-16.
Though the average size on these creeks is smaller than the Arkansas, they make up for it in numbers and abandon. Concentrate on the pools, eddies and undercut banks when placing your flies, using short casts to keep from tangling the trees and undergrowth.
Fish upstream and move quietly along the banks. Also good bets for success, many of these creeks are interrupted by beaver ponds that hold the possibility of larger fish.
Here’s a partial list of some of our better, more accessible streams
Poncha and Silver creeks: Take CR 200 west from U.S. 285, south of Poncha Springs. Plentiful brown trout near the highway, cutts and brookies on the upper stretches.
South Arkansas/North Fork of the South Arkansas: Take U.S. 50 west from Poncha Springs. Continue up Monarch Pass to above the town of Garfield/Monarch. Good stream and beaver pond fishing for cutts and brookies on this part of the South or “Little” Arkansas. Or turn north (right) at the town of Maysville to follow the North Fork road. The North Fork is a more rugged U.S. Forest Service road above the Angel of Shavano campground, but has great access to this beautiful little stream with cutts and brookies.
Chalk Creek: By taking CR 162 west from U.S. 285, good fishing can be found from above Cascade Falls up to the community of Alpine for small browns. Great access continues above Alpine Lake to St. Elmo, and above on the two forks from Hancock and Tincup passes for good cutthroats.
Cottonwood Creek: CR 306 heads west from the stoplight in Buena Vista and parallels the creek to the top of Cottonwood Pass. Good access along its length for brook and cutthroats. The South Fork leads to Cottonwood Lake, with a productive stretch of stream above and below.
Clear Creek: North of Buena Vista, off U.S. 24 Clear Creek heads west and gives about 12 miles of access above the reservoir and Clear Creek Ranch, to the ghost town of Winfield. Beaver ponds and pocket water hold cutthroats and brookies.
How and where you’ll catch on high lakes:
The real jewels of Colorado fishing are to be found at elevations from 9,000 to almost 13,000 feet, some lakes so high you can’t see a tree. Access to the higher waters is limited from late June to late September most years.
In gin-clear water, trout cruise for insects blown onto the water, often feeding with abandon through the day. Fishing can seem easy one minute, then turn on a dime. Often, people call these waters and fish temperamental, hit or miss, unpredictable.
Nothing could be further from the truth – it’s all about the water temperature. Sunshine on the water starts a predictable cycle of feeding where bugs and fish get more active as the day progresses. Clouds or storms often cool down the water and disrupt the cycle. The fish shift focus to other foods like freshwater shrimp or just wait for tomorrow.
So get your approach or hike out of the way and wait for some sun to warm up the lake. Most of the lakes at timberline and above have well-defined shelf systems and structure where the majority of the trout feed.
Some of these are better fished with waders, but most require a cast of less than 35 feet and have a clear back cast. Less gear to carry is a good thing up here.
A 9-foot 5-weight outfit with a 9-foot 5x leader is a perfect match for fishing here. Fluorocarbon tippets can make a difference in the clear waters. For flies, a mix of attractor dries (Parachute Adams, Black Foam Caddis, Peacock PMX in 14-16) and terrestrials (Hopper, beetle and ant patterns 12-14) will cover the surface activity, while a selection of bead head midges (black and red) and shrimp (tan scud, GR Hare’s Ear) can be suspended under the dry fly on a 24-30-inch dropper.
By targeting the shelves and drop-offs, inlets, outlets and structures like submerged boulders, you will be showing your flies to the maximum number of fish. Good polarized glasses will be a huge help in seeing cruisers on these areas.
You’ll find that the wind is often a factor, both with casting and helping to concentrate the food for the trout. While casting with the wind at the back is easier, the bugs get pushed to the other side and often create better feeding areas.
A list of some of the better local waters includes:
O’Haver Lake: An easy drive, this popular lake is off Poncha Pass and holds cutthroat and rainbow trout.
North Fork Reservoir: Nestled at 11,280 feet, this lake is 7 miles above the Angel of Shavano campground on the North Fork of the South Arkansas. It is a rough road above the campground, so a high clearance vehicle is a must. North Fork holds rainbow and cutthroat trout and grayling. A rugged mile hike above the reservoir, Billings, Island and Arthur lakes provide good fishing for cutts, with golden trout a recent addition in Arthur.
Waterdog and Grass lakes: Above Garfield on U.S. 50, a short, steep hike leads to these subalpine lakes at 11,400 feet. Both grow sizeable cutts, so the hike is well worth it. A float tube or waders are a huge advantage on these two.
Pomeroy Lakes: Separated by a 1-mile hike across treeless ground, these two lakes are above St. Elmo on one of the more rugged roads in the area. High Clearance four-wheel drive or all-terrain vehicles are necessary to reach the lower lake. Or you can just hike the 2 miles from the Hancock railroad bridge. Both lakes contain both cutts and grayling with the upper lake holding the larger fish. They are easy to fish from shore, but be cautious with the weather/lightning on these exposed waters.
Ptarmigan Lake: At 12,500 feet, this is one of the best settings for fishing in the valley. A popular day hike from the well-marked trailhead off CR 306/Cottonwood Pass, a 3-mile stroll leads to this alpine classic. Despite the popularity, Ptarmigan grows some of the largest cutts in the drainage.
Hartenstein Lake: From the Denny Creek Trailhead on CR 306, a steady 3-mile ascent takes you past the Mount Yale trail fork to the area’s best brook trout lake. In the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, there are several good casting areas at this tree-rimmed water.
Kroenke Lake: A gentle 4-mile hike from the North Cottonwood Trailhead, this beautiful gem in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness holds cutts and golden trout.
Timberline Lake: Above Turquoise Lake, west of Leadville, lies this greenback cutthroat fishery. An easy 1-mile walk, here the fish are plentiful and eager.
What else you need to know:
With so many opportunities in the backcountry for great fishing, it can be easy to get lost in your day. A few things will make your experience better:
Carry a map and let someone know where you are going. Stick to your plan. Don’t worry about your phone, it won’t work up there. Do bring a camera, you’ll want the memories.
Carry a compass as well as your GPS; batteries die or get lost. Carry plenty of water or an adequate filter, food, good rain gear and layers for warmth throughout the day. Always have a knit hat and gloves – even in July it could snow. Weather changes quickly from paradise to violent in short order, so pay attention and get below treeline before the lightning starts. Use sunscreen always and often.
Pack your trash and toilet paper out. Keep human waste at least 200 feet from the lakes and streams and bury the waste.
If you are releasing the fish, always wet your hands before you touch them, to protect them from infection. If you harvest trout to eat, leave the guts on the bank for the ravens and raccoons, or better still pack them out. Do kill and clean your fish immediately; they will taste better.
The fish between 12 and 14 inches are the best eating, so try to return the larger trout for someone else to experience.
Above all, have a safe and incredible experience in these beautiful places with these amazing fish!