Not all trout rivers are in decline.
[by Miles Nolte]
I FOUND THE ARKANSAS RIVER WHEN I WAS BARELY OLD ENOUGH TO DRINK. All these years later, the details are hazy: a heartbreak, a road trip, seeking solace in the mountains, scanning a map, remembering an invitation.
Kristen, a friend from college, worked summers as a white-water rafting guide in Colorado. I called her from a gas station pay phone after a week or two of state lines, interstates, county roads, two-tracks, and bootlaced forays into the woods.
The evening caddis hatch was so thick, and the fish so eager, that the trout fought over our flies.
The town was small and dusty, exposed in a mountainous basin. It seemed vulnerable to incursion, Mongols maybe. Arthritic piñon pines hunched at chaotic intervals along the road. Rock and grass thrust up toward a cloudless sky; the outlines of ridges danced on the hot August horizon.
Kristin and her gaggle of raft guides hosted me for two days. During working hours, I stowed away among the tourists, bounced through white water, and listened to stories and jokes showing wear after a season of daily use.
In the evening, we returned to the river, strapped oar frames to boats, and piled the inflatable floors with cans of beer: cold rivers make good refrigerators. Someone donned a wetsuit and flippers, grabbed a boogie board, and hooted when she hit the water.
Then the fly rods came out. The evening caddis hatch was so thick, and the fish so eager, that the trout fought over our flies. There were fish in every slick, around every boulder, feasting in every tailout. I was awestruck. Despite all the bass, bluegills, and pike I’d caught on a fly rod, these were my first trout. I know now how impressive the numbers of fish were. I also know enough now to find it odd that no one caught a single fish over 12 inches.
NEARLY 20 YEARS PASSED BEFORE I SAW THE ARKANSAS RIVER AGAIN. What I found was surprising and, perhaps, even hopeful. My initial impression of the valley was apt: the mountains hadn’t done a very good job protecting against incursion. Though, if longtime locals are to be believed, it wasn’t Mongols but Californians who’d invaded. The small, dusty towns that dot the river’s corridor have sprawled. Pastel stucco sprouts far faster than the gnarled trees that still lean into the winds.
Much has changed, but not only in the ways one might expect. I’ll spoil the suspense here: despite a population explosion and continued competition for limited water in a high-mountain desert, the trout fishing on the Arkansas River has gotten better. The fish numbers are still high, but now they grow well beyond a foot long. This river is an outlier. It represents a rare strengthening swimmer among a school of declining American fisheries.
For generations, the Arkansas was defined by industrial utility. Mid-19th-century mines at the headwaters drained slurry and waste. As the economy of Colorado shifted toward agriculture, the water went to crops and cattle, but there wasn’t enough. Farmers and ranchers on the fertile, though arid, Eastern Plains of the Rockies coveted the plentiful moisture on the west side. By the mid-1980s, a series of transmountain water-diversion projects tunneled through the mountains, increasing the flow of the Arkansas by more than 30 percent. The river fills Pueblo Reservoir, which feeds many of the fields of eastern Colorado.
With more water came more people. Settlements expanded into towns. But in the middle of the 20th century, the Arkansas had little identity as a river. The derelict mines upstream continued to seep cadmium, copper, zinc, and mercury in such quantities that the upper reaches were lifeless. The lower river had good numbers of fish, but they couldn’t live beyond four years. Supposedly, the stretches near towns actually did have some big fish in them, but only because the sewage leaking from septic fields trapped some of the heavy metals in the substrate. When the state implemented sewage regulations, even those few big fish disappeared.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Colorado absorbed a flood of people. They came to the Front Range for mountains and rivers, for sunshine, open space, and ideology. White-water enthusiasts like my friend Kristen discovered the Arkansas with its drops and holes. Anglers like myself found huge numbers of fish and blanket caddis hatches. The river found advocates who saw it as more than just a conduit; but advocacy, in itself, isn’t enough. Rivers also need volunteers, funders, researchers, protectors. Growing a river is an engineering problem, but restoring its identity is more complicated.
In the early 1980s, many of the folks who had invaded the area (some of whom were the reviled Californians) began lobbying to clean up their aquatic artery. By 1983, some of those people were complaining about the two defunct mines at the headwaters (Yak and Leadville). In 1986, an earthen dam at the Yak ruptured, sending rust-colored sludge the length of the river. Belly-up fish bobbed whitely at the surface before disappearing in the flow. This event galvanized public outcry. In less than a decade, the mines were designated as Superfund sites, forcing the mining companies to finance major abatement projects that now trap and remove 50 percent of the hazardous waste their mines are leaching.
The future doesn’t look all that good for many trout rivers. Most news about coldwater fisheries involves dire destinies.
Anglers and white-water enthusiasts who banded together to get the heavy metals out of the river found themselves at odds over river flows. After the transmountain diversion projects were in place, engineers kept the flows highest in winter to minimize evaporation as the water moved between reservoirs, but that practice reversed the natural cycle of the river. In 1989, a Corps of Engineers renovation project on the upstream dam required significant draining of the reservoir, causing the river to flow at high levels all summer. The white-water industry boomed; tourists flocked; businesses opened. When hydrologists went to shut off the tap the following summer, the white-water community pushed back, formally requesting a minimum summertime flow of 1,000 cubic feet per second.
The local fisheries biologist released a study demonstrating negative impacts of high summertime flows on the trout population. Trout don’t mind high water in the spring, but they need a decrease during their prime feeding months. River users, who had fought as allies, became enemies. White-water recreation brings an estimated $60 million a year to the area. Fishing brings a third of that. Agriculture trumps both. In the end, all parties agreed on 700 cfs minimum flow in the summer season—a workable compromise, so long as there continues to be sufficient water to steal from the far side of the mountains.
The Arkansas earned “Gold Medal” status as a trout stream in 2014. In 2015, Browns Canyon National Monument was established, protecting a significant stretch of the river from development or grazing. The upstream sections have been restored to re-create the winding, habitat-rich streambed that once curled through that valley. There’s even a project to reestablish the long-extirpated salmon fly—Pteronarcys californica—to this river, the trout’s most significant insect food source and the West’s most iconic hatch. So far, the results have been inconclusive. In the past 20 years, the Arkansas River got some of its identity back.
The future doesn’t look all that good for many trout rivers. Most news about coldwater fisheries involves dire destinies. Growing populations, rising temperatures, increased demand for water, calls for broadening extractive industries to bolster slumping economies—these threats weigh heavily on those who value the simple silliness of fooling critters with dressed hooks.
But fatalism isn’t motivating. While the collective health of riverine ecosystems is troubling, we need reminders, not just of what we’re losing, but what we might yet accomplish. We need rivers like the Arkansas so we can bear to look forward.
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER, I board a raft at the same spot where I caught my first trout. Since then, I’ve caught thousands, and guided other anglers to many more thousands. This time, I’ve come back to the river in a buttoned-up, professional context, a member of the media. I’m here to learn what successful river conservation smells like. After two days of arid statistics and glossy reports, I’m ready to touch water.
After the first few shallow bends, we drop into a deep trough, and my boatmate shows me just how much this river has changed, bringing a 17-inch brown trout to the net. The morning continues steadily, each of us catching healthy fish between 14 and 18 inches on both dry flies and nymphs. The caddis still hatch in hordes, but they are now joined by various mayflies and stoneflies, bugs too sensitive to survive here 10 years ago. We hit the boat ramp at lunchtime with both our rods bent.
Miles Nolte wishes to thank the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Trout Unlimited for all the work they have done to spread the word about the Arkansas River.