Arkansas Headwaters
Recreation Area

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photo by Mike Rosso - AVP

From Leadville to Pueblo Reservoir, river activities are managed by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.
A joint management project of Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the AHRA covers about 150 miles of river and includes some 28 developed recreation sites and innumerable non-fee recreation access points.
While use of the developed sites frequently requires a fee (look for the entrance signs and fee tubes), no permits or fees are required outside of these sites.
Established in the late 1980s in response to increasing recreational pressure on the resource, the AHRA has been responsible for a vast increase in public access on the river. That increase has been greatly augmented by the works of a partner agency, the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The DOW has developed leases of private lands for public fishing access and the establishment of State Wildlife Areas within the AHRA opened up even more access.
One reason for establishment of the AHRA was to manage the river’s robust commercial rafting industry. The large number of rafting companies (56) and the trip price competition that was engendered, the variety of whitewater available, proximity to Front Range population centers and extensive public access all combine to make the Arkansas the world’s most popular whitewater boating river.
In 2004, about 250,000 visitors participated in commercial rafting trips on the Arkansas. While such numbers of boaters may sound daunting to the fly angler in search of trout and solitude, the vast majority of commercial boating takes place on a few key sections of the Arkansas and the industry is closely regulated on other sections of the river to protect the fishing experience.
If you plan to fish the river during the primary summer vacation period (mid-June to mid-August), avoiding the rafting crowds is an important consideration. Above Fisherman’s Bridge upstream of Browns Canyon, rafting traffic is minimal, particularly afternoons. The Browns Canyon run, from Fisherman’s Bridge to Stone Bridge, is very busy with rafts at this time of year, particularly on weekends. If you want to fish the Canyon, or the excellent water above it, wait until after 4 p.m. when the raft traffic normally clears out. Below Browns Canyon, from Stone Bridge all the way to Pinnacle Rock (some 50 miles of river), raft traffic is light. This is because the gradient and technicality of the river through this reach is not challenging enough to produce a significant number of exciting rapids.
It does, however, provide some great trout habitat and the AHRA manages this section with fishing in mind. In fact, during the period outside of high water, regulations call for no more than 10 commercial boats (raft trips, kayak instruction and float fishing trips) passing any one point each day between Big Bend and Texas Creek. Regs also require that all non-fishing commercial boats be off the river by 5 p.m. Below Pinnacle Rock, raft traffic increases thanks to rapids in Parkdale and Royal Gorge. However, since the water is generally warmer at this lower end of the river, evening fishing is often the best mid-summer option through this reach anyway.