The upper Arkansas River used to be home to short-lived fish and heavy metal contamination, but after years of dedicated restoration efforts, anglers are flocking to the river for its trout. Earlier in 2014 the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (CPW) added the river to its list of Gold Medal Trout Waters. In order to qualify, a body of water must support a minimum average of 12 quality trout—fish larger than 14 inches—per acre.
“The upper Arkansas River fishery is the best it has been in over a century thanks to the efforts and hard work of many agencies and individuals that have recognized its great potential,” said CPW Aquatic Biologist Greg Policky. “I am very pleased that this outstanding river has received the Gold Medal designation and is now ranked among the elite trout fisheries in Colorado.”
Trout in the 102-mile stretch of river are living up to 10 years due to the improved water quality and restoration efforts. In a recent survey, the Arkansas River was ranked the most popular destination for Colorado anglers and was determined to draw in more than 100,000 sportsmen annually. This was almost unimaginable two decades ago, while restoration efforts were ongoing. When cleanup efforts first started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mining pollution suffocated the river. Mining operations near the river’s origin in Leadville made it impossible for fish to survive, and according to the CPW, and even fish downstream were looking at a life expectancy of three years.
“It was acutely toxic,” Policky told The Denver Post. “It affected the food resources as well, so it wasn’t just a survival thing. It was a growth and fitness thing.”
Surprisingly enough, the first sign of recovery was a drought. Water shortage in 2002 played a large part in boosting trout growth.
“In 2002, people in the general populace kind of went, ‘Whoa, look at these fish,’ ” Policky said. “We went from less than 10 fish per acre over 14 inches to close to 60 per acre that year. In one year, just a huge increase because that growing season was so good.”
The Arkansas River’s popularity is no news for many of Colorado’s anglers; they have been going there to fish for years. After the Gold Medal listing, many more are expected to make the trip to the “Ark” for large brown trout.