It’s Stonefly Time on the Arkansas River

There are two floats that a fisherman looks forward to the most throughout the year. The first is the inaugural spring float, that rite of passage as we emerge from winter’s long dark tunnel to the burgeoning dawn of the new day. The second is the first float after runoff. The river is still high, but dropping and clearing, and the fish haven’t had much to do for the last month or so except hunker down, spit grit out their gills and get hungry.

While kayakers and rafters may be lamenting the decreasing flows, we fishermen are pretty excited. Not only are the fish hungry thanks to their enforced Ramadan or Lent, but the higher flows force them to seek shelter along the banks out of the main current, where they lie stacked like cordwood. Add to this the fact that June is the time of the year when the stoneflies hatch, and you have a pretty good combination. Runoff came early this year. Normally the river doesn’t peak till around mid – late June, so we don’t often get to fish the stonefly hatch. Not so this year.

 

The great thing about stoneflies is that they are generally big and ungainly. For fish persevering on a diet of small mayflies and caddis flies, a stonefly is like a cheeseburger or wings after several months of tofu slivers and brown rice. For the fisher person, it is the chance to ditch the 5x and 6x and size 18 patterns for 3x and size 10s. Stoneflies are the predators of the nymph world. No grazing on vegetables for these guys. They grow to pretty impressive sizes, and feed on other nymphs for up to three years before crawling from the river onto rocks along the banks of the river, usually at night, to shed their skins, fly away and procreate.

The Arkansas River has two main types of stones – golden and yellow sallies. While not as large as a salmonfly, the goldens in particular can grow to a pretty respectable size, providing a good shot of protein for a hungry fish. As you can see from the video, the river is still pretty high and fast, which makes wading a bit of a sketchy proposition. I would not recommend setting foot in the water at this level, but rather fishing carefully up the banks, keeping your feet dry. As all the fish are stacked along the banks anyway, there’s no need to wade out into the stream – they’re all right there under your nose.

As for float fishing, things happen pretty fast – a drift of five seconds duration is  good. Hence the importance of getting the fly on the bank and right in front of the fish. We fished single dry flies all afternoon, and it didn’t seem to matter too much what size or color. Stimulators, pmxs and yellow foam flies all worked well, both big and small. As the river continues to drop and settle, the fishing will only get better. While the caddis hatch is fun, for me this is the best time of the year to fish. No more snow storms,  measuring the water temperature and trying to decipher the feeding patterns, now it’s fishing for the attention deficit. Just tie on a piece of 3x, stick on something big, hairy and dry, and throw it out there. For more up to the minute fishing conditions, click here.

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Show Down at Grass Lake…

As the rivers rise, its time to head to the hills in search of fish and salvation. With the Arkansas and most of its feeder streams running high and murky, it’s the high lakes that offer the best opportunity locally for a fishing fix. I’ve never been a huge fan of still water fishing. I like the dynamic of moving water. I like the challenges of accurate fly placement and manipulating the line to achieve a natural drift. That said, Grass Lake has been my nemesis over the last few years. Despite several trips there, I had yet to catch a fish, and the pressure was on.

There are several reasons why hiking to a high lake makes for a great day of fishing. Firstly, the surroundings: no crowds, and there is a stark, harsh beauty to these lakes. To survive there, both flora and fauna have to be extremely resilient. They manage to survive in an environment far removed from our comfortable, insulated existence. Secondly, the fishing is often challenging on a number of levels. Unlike rivers, with their better defined holding areas, fish move around in search of food rather than waiting for it to come to them. Consequently, a new strategy is required.

Firstly, its a good idea to walk the shoreline slowly looking for fish feeding and cruising. Upon locating a cruising fish, try to place the fly a few feet ahead of the as it swims by – just like bone fishing in the Bahamas, but a whole lot cheaper. Also, look for inflow and outflow streams where the movement of the water creates current, and you will often see fish concentrated around these places also. That said, there are often times where because of light conditions, the play of wind on water etc there is no way you will see fish, unless they happen to be rising. This is the time where patience and paying attention is paramount. Unlike river fishing, where thirty seconds equates to a long drift, on a lake sometimes you throw it out there and leave it for several minutes waiting for a passing cruiser. In this case, I can guarantee that the second you look away will be the second the fish chooses to strike, as evidenced by my tail hook on the video.

Secondly, lakes are often very still and clear. Fish can see a long way as they cruise, so are very sensitive to a poorly presented cast. I’ll usually fish with a longer leader and lighter tippet to help counter this, as unlike in moving water, a fish has all the time in the world to inspect a fly before deciding whether or not to take. A little trick to help overcome this shyness is to impart a little movement to the fly as the fish approaches. Art imitates life, and sometimes a little twitch of a dry fly, or lifting of a nymph will induce a take.

And then, there is the satisfaction of feeling like you have done something healthy with your day. The demands of a hike at altitude goes some way towards mitigating the life of relative sloth that we float fishermen tend to lead. Some days the most physically challenging thing you do is reach into the cooler for another brew, so huffing and puffing up the side of a mountain makes for a pleasant change of pace.

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