After the 416 Fire of 2018 killed 80% of the fish population in the Animas River, life is slowly returning to its devastated waters

The Animas River has had a rough go in recent years. Once prized as Gold Medal waters for fishing near Durango, Colorado, drought and disaster drastically altered the fish population and turned the lives of local anglers upside down.

Despite the Gold King Mine Spill dumping three million gallons of toxic mining wastewater into the Animas in 2015, fish populations were not drastically harmed during this event. 

Ironically, prior to 2018 the Animas River was a dream for anglers across the region. “It was probably some of the best fishing I had seen on the river in seven years,” said Ryan Cleveland, a local fly-fisherman that had spent countless days each season casting for brown and rainbow trout.

But then in 2018, a dry winter signaled a severe drought in Southwest Colorado and kept water levels low throughout the summer. The Animas River only reached a max CFS (cubic feet per second) of 2,000 that season. To better understand how low that number is, the CFS in 2019 after a record-breaking winter was just over 7,000.

Along with low water levels came the 416 Fire. And with the 416 came burn scars all along the Animas River north of Durango. When the summer monsoons came, mudslides hurdled fire debris and ash straight into the pristine waters of the Animas that suffocated fish.

Wildlife officials reported that 80% of the fish population died after the devastating summer of 2018.

angler fly fishing animas river
Ryan Cleveland casts into the now clear waters of the Animas River. Slowly but surely, the waters of the Animas are slowly recovering after the 416 Fire of 2018.Terrance Siemon

While all hope seemed lost after this catastrophic season, the Animas River is showing signs of recovery. In late 2018, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife restocked the Animas with 1,500 rainbow trout. 2019 provided a time of regeneration and revival to the waters of this free-flowing river in Southwest Colorado, with life slowly returning to the waters of the Animas.

“It’s a resilient river; I think we’re going to be fine,” said Cleveland. “But it’s just going to take five or six years for it to get back to where it was.”