Arkansas River Fishermen Get Gold
Fishing in the Arkansas River
Bill Dvorak arrived in Arkansas River Valley in the late 1970s. At the time, the river was heavily contaminated with metals coming from mining areas. Through the enormous efforts of Bill and many others like him, the Arkansas is now, not only clean, but revitalized.
Bill makes his living via Dvorak Expeditions, a rafting, fishing and specialty trip company with adventures along the Arkansas and other major U.S. rivers. He was also instrumental in obtaining Gold Medal Fishing Status for the Arkansas which effectively doubled the amount of Gold Medal fishing waters in Colorado. He is currently working towards Brown’s Canyon receiving National Monument status.
I chatted with Bill the other day about how far the river has come and where it is going. Here is a bit of what he had to say:
How have you seen the Arkansas River change since your arrived in the 1970s?The biggest difference is that back in those days there were a lot of heavy metals coming out of the Leadville, CO California Gulch area. These metals would affect a fish’s liver. Very few of them lived to be over three or four years old because their livers failed – so most only grew to be nine, 10 or 11 inches long.
Sometime back in the 80s, the California Gulch area got designated as an EPA Superfund Site, and they spent 10 years cleaning that area up. They got rid of all the heavy metals.
There were a couple of big spills in that time period as well. Once the river actually turned orange and wiped out most of the fish. Another time they were cleaning up Twin Lakes, misjudged, released all of the water, and killed the fish again.
We had the qualifications to be Gold Medal Status for the last 6 or maybe even 10 years, but the DOW did not want to do it because they were worried something might happen again. Finally, they were comfortable.
Where does the Arkansas River stand today?
It is the best it has ever been. The Gold Medal status for 10 years tells you the quality of the water is exceptional right now.
The other thing that has really helped is we have a voluntary flow program which does not let the river go below certain flows levels during the year and doing so protects the breeding areas of the fish – so they do not dry out.
They also try to limit when the spring release comes as far as run off. If they hold it off until May or the third week in May, this lets the Rainbows spawn in the spring without the risk of them being washed away. The flow program also benefits us from the recreational rafting side as from the first of July through the middle of August they try to keep the flow at 700 cfs – to help river rafting.
What kinds of fish are found in the river? Browns and Rainbows.
Now that Arkansas River is clean, how big are the fish?
To be Gold Medal status, fish you have to have 60 pounds of fish per acre or 12 to 14 fish over 14” per acre, and we have three times that biomass. We have 170 pounds of fish per designated area.
How does the fish population change throughout the year?
The two strains of fish spawn at different times. The Browns spawn in the fall. What used to happen with the fluctuations of the water is the eggs would dry out or the high water would wash them away – now that there is consistent flow that does not happen, and the Browns have really proliferated. The Rainbows hatch in the spring. We have had a number of years where we have not had a good snowpack, so we have not had a big runoff which has helped the Rainbow population grow naturally. When I was first here, it was really unusual to catch a Rainbow and now about every three out of eight fish are Rainbows.
What would it mean if Brown’s Canyon received National Monument status?
We have been working on some kind of permanent protection for this area for about 15 years. There were originally 124,000 acres identified as wilderness quality in the 80s, and it is has been whittled down to 22,000 acres.
The National Monument would create permanent protection. It would also add 1050 acres of wilderness area. The permanent protection is the big thing. For example, recently the BLM let their mineral withdrawal for the area expire and five mining claims came in. This means they could go in with small mechanical dredges and start tearing up the bottom. Those are the kind of things we are trying to avoid.
You never know what will happen. They claim we are not in an oil and gas area but who knows. We just want to make sure it stays as is.
Where would the National Monument be to and from?
It would start about 5 or 6 miles south of Buena Vista to about 10 miles north of Salida. There are a couple of access points – Ruby Mountain and Hecla Junction – that would be included in the monument.
What about books or resources where people could learn more?
Trout Unlimited puts out a lot of information about the state. Collegiate Peaks Anglers puts out a great map on fishing access points.
Do you have any recommendations on places to eat or stay in the area?
Mt Princeton Hot Springs Resort is a real attraction because of the hot springs and as is the San Isabel Bed and Breakfast. The other thing that is cool about this area is that when we first came here we were very used to Bed and Breakfasts and there weren’t any of them and now there are 23 of them. We also try to encourage people to do an overnight river trip. Currents in Salida is run by an ex-guide of mine, The Asian Palette in Buena Vista, Laughing Ladies. The Patio Pancake is known far and wide for its breakfasts.
What is left to do for Brown’s Canyon to receive National Monument status?Senator Udall has been working on a community process for the last 18 months to two years trying to get input from everyone on the best way to do it. He introduced his bill about two months ago, and it has to go through the legislation process. The big deal is that it is very unusual, almost impossible, to get legislation passed if you do not have a house sponsor, and it is usually the representative from the area you are in. Right now the local representative is Doug Lamborn out of Colorado Springs, and he has consistently been voted the most conservative representative in all of Congress for the last six years. He is not keen on any sort of government designation of land. We have been working with him to try and to see if we can get him turned around. I don’t know if we will ever get him turned around. A back-up is that the President could use the Antiquities Act and make it a National Monument that way.