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December 21, 2020
The ski resort in this part of southwest Colorado’s name is “Purgatory.” The Animas River’s Spanish name, “El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio,” translates to “The River of the Lost Souls in Hell.” Between the ski resort’s name and the Animas River’s origin, you would think this part of Colorado was a barren, bleak, and daunting landscape. But ask any outdoor enthusiast, the Animas River fly fishing adventure is literal heaven on Earth.
Reaching 126 miles long, the Animas River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state of Colorado. Beginning in the Needle Mountains of the San Juan Mountain Range, these waters rush along Cinnamon Mountain and cascade through wild canyons before flowing through Silverton, Colorado. As it exits Silverton, the Animas races for Durango, Colorado, where a section of the water holds a Colorado Gold Medal fishing destination title. Once out of the Durango territory, the Animas sees its ultimate resting place in New Mexico where it merges with the San Juan River near the city of Aztec.
With some parts of the river stretching out to one hundred feet wide, these waters are home to an abundance of trout, both native and stocked. With 70% of angler’s catches being rainbow, rainbow trout are the most popular species found in the Animas. 25% of catches are that of the brown trout species, and the remaining catches comprise cutthroat and brook trout.
Between the record-setting large trout catches, being habitat to resident and migratory bald eagles, and the undeniable beauty of the peaks that make up the San Juan Mountain Range, Animas River fly fishing is some of the best in the world. To prepare for the best experience the Animas can offer, it’s critical to know the hot places on the river to fish, the best time of year to fish, and how to plan a fly-fishing trip to this corner and tributary of Colorado.
Although the most isolated and nature-soaked part of the river is near its head, it requires a lengthy commute and is trickier to access, even by car. However, if you’re up for the challenge, don’t be afraid to try out your casts in these waters. This beginning stretch of the river near the small mining town of Silverton is home to some mammoth trout. You can find these hungry beasts in the deep pools between the boulders that tumble from the peaks and crash land in the stream.
Conveniently, the best Animas River fly fishing takes place in the heart of Durango, Colorado. From the 32nd Street Bridge on the north end of town to the Rivera Bridge at Dallabetta City Park, 7 miles of the river is accessible. A lot of the water here is wide and shallow, making for stellar wade fishing. The section of the Animas flowing before and after the Rivera Bridge is what earned the Animas its Gold Medal Water status. A foot and bike trail parallels all 7 miles of this river section, so a lot of its waters can be fished in a single day.
South of Durango and just past the Rivera Bridge, a section of the water flows right through the Ute Reservation. This significant stretch of the Animas belongs to Ute and Navajo tribal lands, prohibiting fishing without a permit. That said, the Animas River fly fishing is world-class here because of the perfect water and weather. It is more than worth your effort and time to get a Southern Ute Tribal Permit. For permit and location details, read up on the latest editions of the Southern Ute Tribal Fishing Proclamation.
The Animas River waters are born from the San Juan Mountain runoffs. Lasting until late June, the river fishes well at its highest flow and when it’s clearing from its entanglement with the mountain mud. Although the summers in Southwest Colorado are pretty warm, midday fishing is notorious for being quite slow. However, the fishing really peaks during the July and August months. In the winter, water temperatures near 40 degrees consistently, making the Animas a glorious spot for winter fishing.
Rainbow trout, which makes up most of the Animas yield, spawn from mid-March to mid-April. If the river hasn’t frozen over, these months produce great opportunities. Some winters fare harsher than others, causing the river to freeze over some years, or stay open for others. The real treasure season for Animas River fly fishing is mid-October to mid-November, where spawning browns from the fall are grown, active and hungry. Native cutthroats have been minimal in recent years, but do not be surprised if you catch one.
Animas River fly fishing is angler haven three hundred and sixty-five days a year. From 32nd Street Bridge to the sector near Lightner Creek, four trout per day is permissible. Known as the designated Gold Medal reach, the section making up Lightner Creek to Purple Cliffs has its limits. Two fish 16 inches or longer, caught with artificial flies and lures only, is critical to adhere to.
With the finest fly fishing right in the city of Durango, lodging and dining amenities are abundant, making the trip easy to prepare for. This incredible city is worth the trip alone, loaded with anglers and fly shops eager to give you helpful Animas tips. To pack for this trip, it’s best to keep it simple and effective when it comes to gear selection. Go with what has worked for many others and you will catch something hefty!
When it comes down to your fly box, you’ve got a few different choices to load up on for some bites. Hands down, the most important food source for Animas River fly fishing are sculpins. Casting these little guys is a sure-fire way to catch some huge and hungry trout. Fish settle in the deeper pockets of the Animas during the winter. To ensure a catch, cast various midge patterns into these holes.
For summer visiting anglers, be sure to pack some caddisflies. Elk Hair, Trude, and Goodard Caddis patterns are solid choices for the later summer evening fly fishing. For fishing dry flies and small nymphs, make sure you’re sporting a 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with a floating line. Protect your rod during your commute to the Animas with a Riversmith fly-rod roof rack so it makes it to the river in pristine and working condition. It also makes it easy to go from spot to spot without breaking down your rods and re-rigging each time. Finally, it will serve you well to pack neoprene chest high waders, booths with stream cleats, and a wading staff.
If you ask anyone worth their salt where in the United States can you experience cream of the crop fly fishing, they would definitely mention Colorado. If you asked them to be more specific, it’s likely they would mention the Animas River. With a Gold Medal Water status and record-sized trout still being pulled from its waters today, Animas River fly fishing is heaven in liquid form. Whether in the deep wild or casting from the shores of Durango, be ready for anything. But most importantly, be ready to catch some massive trout!
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