BUENA VISTA – Last month’s designation of Gold Medal trout waters for a stretch of the Arkansas River through Buena Vista and Salida is likely to bring additional attention to the river as a fishing destination.
But the river is already known as a place to catch plenty of fish.
“Making it Gold Medal will make it more popular, but it’s pretty darn popular now,” said Rick Typher, owner of Denver Angler in Centennial. “We get people going to the Arkansas River every weekend. It’s a very popular destination already.”
What makes the designation special is that it defines the river as a place to catch big fish – something for which the Arkansas River is not widely known among angling circles, according to Tom Bie, publisher and editor of national fly fishing magazine The Drake.
“It’s always been good fishing, but the average size has gotten bigger, and I think that probably means as much as the number of fish,” Bie said.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission requires that a Gold Medal fishery produce 60 pounds of trout per mile and at least a dozen fish per mile that are 14 inches or longer. The definition is somewhat obscure to fishermen, who count fish in numbers and inches rather than pounds.
“A dozen trout isn’t many, but if there are fish in there that are more than 14 inches, that’s a good size for Colorado,” Bie said, adding that the statewide average is more like 9 or 10 inches.
The Arkansas River has produced such results for years, according to local anglers. But it hasn’t always been that way. In the 1990s, the Arkansas was known as a place to catch small fish, since brown trout lived to be only 3 years old due to heavy metals in the water that poisoned the fish. Near Leadville, fish did not live at all in the river.
Two decades of cleanup work removed the metals that drained into the watershed from historic mining sites near Leadville, greatly improving the entire aquatic ecosystem.
“That there are any trout in there at all is impressive,” Bie said, “and to get this designation on a river that once was not even healthy enough to support a population is impressive.”
January’s announcement crowned the river Gold Medal from the confluence of the Lake Fork near Leadville to Parkdale, at the U.S. 50 bridge crossing above the Royal Gorge. The 102 miles is the longest stretch of Gold Medal water in the state and doubles the number of miles in Colorado.
“It’s one thing to have a quarter-mile stretch below a reservoir, like the Stagecoach dam on the Yampa,” said Bie. “But it’s quite another to offer a hundred miles. There’s not a lot of disbursement that can take place in a small place like a tailwaters. Getting a hundred miles is great.”
Of the 9,000 stream miles in the state, only 322 are Gold Medal. More than creating an economic boon for local fly shop ArkAnglers, co-owner Greg Felt said the designation would do more to help protect the river for fishing.
“In the future, if there are proposals to significantly change the flow regime or to authorize activities that would negatively impact the fishery, those types of changes will get a much harder look through this new lens,” Felt said.
Water flows are controlled in the summer to benefit the rafting industry, but water managers about a decade ago began to rethink flows at other times of the year to benefit fish. Lower flows in the early spring and fall helped fish retain weight and spawn productively.
The successful introduction of rainbow trout also improved the fishing. After the mining cleanup, changing the flow regime proved to be the best effort toward attaining the Gold Medal, Felt said.
“I don’t anticipate any new initiatives, but the Gold Medal gives us a little more defense in protecting what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Felt said.
ArkAnglers, with locations in Salida and Buena Vista, employs two dozen people during the height of the fishing season and hosted 2,600 guests last year, up 1,000 from 2012.
Because of its location further south and the east-west river orientation that provides more direct sun, businesses in Salida have benefited from a longer fishing season than Buena Vista.
“Fishing just piles on more activity when Buena Vista is already busy,” Felt said, “whereas in Salida, it’s a great shoulder-season activity before Memorial Day and in the fall. We’re putting people in rooms, and they’re dining downtown in September and October because they’re here to fish.”
Felt said he doesn’t picture fishing ever being the economic engine rafting is, but the incremental increases help businesses that rely on tourism.
Felt said he remained skeptical whether Buena Vista could benefit from fishing tourism outside the rafting season. But Judy Hassell, executive director of the town’s chamber of commerce, said it’s already on the local radar.
“Greg (Felt) has made the whole county aware that the fishing starts early and goes later, and that’s a valuable, great thing, and I’m sure the fishermen know it,” Hassell said.
Chaffee County Visitors Bureau Marketing Director April Ralph said the new designation, like the Creative District in Salida, would be beneficial as a marketing tool to help promote the area as a place with lots of visitor activities.
“These designations are great for advertising, public relations and other marketing tools,” Ralph said, adding that the Gold Medal news will be included in the next Now This Is Colorado visitor’s guide, due out in a couple of weeks.