Fly Fishing the Animas River in Colorado
Backcountry vs. Back yard—Fly Fishing Colorado’s Animas River
Colorado offers a cornucopia of outdoor activities, from world-class skiing and hiking to some of the best fly fishing in the country. Anglers can roam the backcountry to find countless little-known mountain streams and alpine lakes, or fish some of the most famous gold medal waters. Regardless of where you find yourself, chances are that fish are there too.
Most of the time, I tend to want to take the road less traveled, retreating into the wilderness where nobody will find me. This, however, would not be one of those times.
For years, I had been hearing tales of the small mountain town of Durango, CO, established in the 1880s when the railroad was expanded to reach nearby mining settlements. But I hadn’t come for the history; I was there to fish the Animas River. In Durango, you don’t have to go far to wet your fly. Some of the best fly fishing on the river—including a stretch of gold-medal-rated water—can be found flowing right through the middle of the town. Friends assured me that, while isolation has its perks, there is something to be said for a river that lies within walking distance of breweries serving cold beer, cafes offering hot coffee, and of course the luxury of public restrooms.
The travel time between my hotel and river access was a matter of mere minutes, a fact that made me feel as though I were somehow cheating the system. Stepping up to the bank, I pictured the brown and rainbow trout that would be lurking just under the surface of the water. It was time to rig up.
My arsenal of flies would be the usual sort for summer fishing in the Mountain West: Midges, mayflies, and caddis. Prince nymphs, a local angler had told me, were a pretty safe bet most days year round. For a dry fly, I opted for an elk-hair caddis—a favorite due to its combination of versatility and visibility. Blue olive dries and nymphs would be my backup, another recommendation from the helpful stranger.
The Animas is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in Colorado, and while the fish can be pretty big, their numbers are more modest than might be expected. I quickly learned to be selective about my tactics, moving on to new holes if the first few casts weren’t successful. It felt strange at first to be casting within view of the houses that dotted the bank, and the occasional raft or tube floated by to disrupt my rhythm, but soon I was too engrossed in the fishing to notice.
These fish were smart, and strikes came infrequently. But when they did, they were big, and each splash was enough to send a jolt of excitement down my spine. I managed to be quick enough to hook a handful of fish, landing two rainbows just before lunch. The afternoon proved uneventful, but the action picked up again by evening. By now, I was tired and hot, and my reaction time was slow, but I managed to get a massive brown trout on the other end of my line. The rough and choppy water rendered the fight long and difficult, and I feared on more than one occasion that I would snap my rod. After what felt like an eternity (albeit a blissful one), I managed to get him in the net.
By now, my forearms were protesting that they had enough for the day, so I made my way to a local brewery for a cold drink. There, I could celebrate my victories and mourn my missed strikes. Over a burger, I noted the merit of what my friends had told me—there were definite benefits of fly fishing so close to civilization. But tomorrow, I decided, I would venture further from town.
In the morning, I headed north of Durango, hiking to one of the Animas’s upper stretches. The distance was longer than anticipated, and I found myself wondering if leaving town was such a good idea after all. However, as I reached the river, my fatigue was washed away. Examining my fly box, now significantly more empty than it had been only 24 hours before, I opted for the blue-winged olive dry fly and nymph, a combination whose symmetry I found pleasing to look at. Hopefully, the fish would feel the same.
The first couple hours started without much luck but, as the hatch reached its height late in the morning, trout came out to play. Over the course of the next few hours, fortune continued to turn in my favor. Like the lower section of town, the fishing wasn’t red-hot in terms of quantity, but the challenge of large fish and rough water made every battle even more thrilling.
As the sun began to dip towards the horizon, I forced myself to make one final cast. Unlike the previous day, I had a long hike home. Trudging back to the car, I was forced to admit that, while there is nothing like having a whole river to myself, more than a little part of me yearned for a hot meal right around the corner.