We used coarse-mesh and fine-mesh leafpacks to examine the importance of aquatic macroinvertebrates in the breakdown of floodplain tree leaf litter that seasonally entered a sand-bedded reach of the sixth-order Yampa River in semiarid Colorado. Leafpacks were positioned off the easily mobilized channel bed, mimicking litter trapped in debris piles. Organic matter (OM) loss was fastest for leaves collected from the floodplain and placed in the river in spring (k = 0.029/day) and slowest for leaves collected and placed in the river in winter (0.006/day). Macroinvertebrates were most abundant in winter and spring leaves, but seemed important to processing only in spring, when exclusion by fine mesh reduced OM loss by 25% and nitrogen loss by 65% in spring leaves. Macroinvertebrates seemed to have little role in processing of autumn, winter, or summer leaves over the 50-day to 104-day monitoring periods. Desiccation during bouts of low discharge and sediment deposition on leaves limited invertebrate processing in summer and autumn, whereas processing of winter leaves, which supported relatively large numbers of shredders, might have been restricted by ice formation and low water temperatures. These results were consistent with the concept that microbial processing dominates in higher-order rivers, but suggested that macroinvertebrate processing can be locally important in higher-order desert rivers in seasons or years with favorable discharge and water quality conditions.