Officials: Mine spill hasn't deterred fishing

More than two months after Gold King Mine was breached, anglers are still fishing on the Animas River with some regularity, according to experts in both Farmington and Durango

Rachel Shockley
Special to The Daily Times
Josh Ashton fishes on Tuesday at Tiger Park Reservoir in Aztec.

With so many fishing holes near Farmington, it can be hard for an angler to pick a favorite spot.

But after the Gold King Mine unleashed a torrent of wastewater laced with heavy metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers, many wondered whether fishing would continue to thrive in the Four Corners.

Now, more than two months after the mine breach, lingering effects of the spill still loom for some residents. But officials in both Farmington and Durango, Colo. — the two communities first hit by the spill — say they haven't seen a tremendous impact on fishing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the organization that has admitted responsibility for the more than 3 million gallons of toxic, mustard-colored wastewater that flowed through the region —  has stated that surface water and sediment concentrations are below recreational screening levels and the river system is back to pre-event conditions.

Melanie Bergolc walks along the banks of Cement Creek in Silverton, Colo., on Aug. 10, a few days after the Gold King Mine spill.

Less than a month after the spill on Sept. 4, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish announced it was lifting the initial catch-and-release recommendation for fish caught in the Animas and San Juan rivers. The department in a press release stated fish caught in the sections of the Animas and San Juan rivers affected by the Gold King Mine wastewater spill were safe to eat.

Before the announcement, the state department sent more than a dozen fish — five catfish and 12 trout — from the affected waters to a lab in Colorado. The lab tested the fish’s organs and tissues for lead, mercury, selenium, copper, arsenic and cadmium — metals that have been linked to human health problems.

“Tissue samples from fish tested revealed trace amounts of metals that are within acceptable levels for human consumption,” said Mike Sloane, chief of fisheries for the department.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has also announced fish from the Colorado portion of the Animas River are safe to eat.

Cory Styron, the director of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said he has not noticed a change in fishing on the Animas River near Farmington.

Josh Ashton reels in his line on Tuesday at Tiger Park Reservoir in Aztec.

Farmington doesn’t have many fishing holes because the water level fluctuates, which can be challenging for fish populations, Styron said.

He added that city officials have been discussing ways to increase fishing in the Animas River, but there are not currently projects planned to address that.

Derek B. Ems, who works at Duranglers, a fishing supply shop in downtown Durango, said he also has not seen effects on fishing in the Animas River from the spill.

But, he said, he has noticed that the number of anglers visiting Durango has slowed.

“We really are trying to get the word out,” Ems said. “It really didn’t affect us, and our fishing is still the same.”

He added, “The mayflies and midges are out, and people are out catching good fish.”

Thje Animas River flows though Riverside Park on Tuesday in Aztec.

Durango has a stretch of water recognized by the state of Colorado as premium trout habitat. Beginning at the Lightner Creek confluence behind the Doubletree Hotel and flowing through the city to Home Depot and under the Rivera Crossing Bridge, the Gold Medal section of river sustains huge rainbow and brown trout.

These waters have special regulations to ensure the trout stay trophy-sized. Fly-fishers casting in this stretch may only keep two fish, and only if they are more than 16 inches in length. Ems said that in this section, catching a fish that large is actually fairly common.

Ems said he probably wouldn’t eat a fish caught in the Animas River, though he said he felt that way even before the spill. He cited a long history of mining in the area, as well as his personal knowledge of the river, as his reasons.

But, Ems added, the state of Colorado assures anglers they can safely eat fish from the Animas.

While fishing, Ems recommends using imitation midges, mayflies, or streamers —long slender flies that mimic small fish. He also suggests casting an imitation sculpin, a type of suckerfish that lives in the Animas that other fish like to eat.

If you travel from New Mexico to wet your line in Colorado, you don’t have to wake up especially early. In the fall, fly-fishing on the Animas can be best from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Ems said.

If you stay closer to home, the New Mexico stretch of the Animas River runs through Aztec and feeds Aztec Pond, Tiger Park Pond and eventually, Farmington Lake. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish regularly stocks rainbow trout in these waters. According to the department’s latest stocking report, about 350 10-inch fish were stocked in Aztec Pond on Oct. 7.

An angler fly-fishes on Sept. 4 along the San Juan River's Quality Waters at Navajo Dam.

On the San Juan River below Navajo Lake —an area spared by the wastewater from the mines spill —fly-fishing is typically good with midges.

Recently, anglers fishing in the tail waters of the dam reported to the state department that they used the flies, Griffith’s gnats, scintillas, parachute Adams, zebra midges and Wooly Buggers. Below the Quality Waters section where anglers can use bait, nearly 2,500 10-inch rainbow trout were released Oct. 7, according to a stocking report.

Downstream, below the Animas confluence, the river is home to several federally endangered fishes: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker and the bluehead sucker.

Roundtail chub and flannelmouth sucker are also found in the river, along with catfish. Although this section isn’t known for fishing, the rare fish make it a unique waterway to visit.

Daily Times reporter Hannah Grover contributed to this story.

Rachel Shockley is a freelancer writer who covers the outdoors for The Daily Times.

More Info

Anglers can purchase New Mexico fishing licenses at onlinesales.wildlife.state.nm.us, at a participating license vendors or by calling the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish at 1-888-248-6866.

Duranglers Flies and Supplies, 923 Main Ave., sells fishing licenses and fishing gear in downtown Durango. Go to duranglers.com or call 970-385-4081.

People look down at the Animas River from a bridge at Berg Park in Farmington on Aug. 8 as a plume of toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine spill passes through the city.