By Larry DeVoto
"Each year I say the same thing - this is the last year I'm goin' to do this," Neil Garrett told me. But for the last 15 years he's been coming back and guiding on one of the prettiest lakes in Utah - Fish Lake.
Neil started escorting anglers as a favor to the owner of the Fish Lake Lodge, not thinking that some years later it would turn into a business. It's a business that keeps him fishing just about every day between May and October.
Now guiding out of Bowery Haven Resort, Neil may only have one to three days a month without a client. On those days you can still find him fishing, maybe not as hard as he does with a client but fishing nevertheless.
During the off-season Neil has a painting company in Nephi. "When I get tired of painting I start guiding and when I get tired of guiding I go back to painting," he told me. His sons run the business while he is guiding. It must be a coincidence, but when the ice is due to come off of the lake Neil is starting to get tired of painting.
Our day started at 5 a.m., getting the boat and equipment ready. By five-thirty we were out on the water with six other boats. As we slowly made our way out Neil was getting the lines ready. I have never fished with copper line and was interested in how he rigged it and why he used it. After he tied on the monofilament leader and lure he explained that the copper line would get down better than leadcore. I was never told but learned very quickly that the only thing we were looking for was lake trout (Mackinaw).
"Macs" were introduced to Fish Lake in the 1930s by Charles Skougaard. Mr. Skougaard had purchased Fish Lake in 1911 and with 12 tents and 12 boats he started Fish Lake Lodge. For those individuals stout enough to make the two- to three-day wagon trip their efforts were rewarded with some of Utah's most beautiful country.
Today, Fish Lake is a nature refuge and fishing haven but it has not always been that way. The Piute Indians revered the lake as a sacred, spiritural place. This was their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In the 1870s, when the white man began using the land to graze livestock trouble began.
The Black Hawk War, between the Piute Tribal Nation and the white man was over use of this hunting and fishing land. A treaty was signed at Cedar Grove in Grass Valley near Koosharem, which ended the war. And by 1889 the white man had a monopoly on the use of the lake. In the treaty, the Piute Tribe gave the use of the water to the white man forever. What did the tribe get for this? Nine horses, five pounds of flour, one good beef steer, and a suit of clothes.
The Black Hawk War is just part of the Fish Lake folklore. Back when wagons were crossing the creeks, it is said that drivers would have to clear fish from the crossing or kill an untold number of fish as the wagon wheels rolled over the creek beds.
Another Fish Lake legend talks about Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch and how they buried their loot from a June 2, 1899, train robbery at Wilcox, Wyoming. Somewhere between Sheep Valley and Seven Mile Canyon the Wild Bunch met some cattlemen and sheepherders who saw the loot. However, another group of herders saw the Bunch outside of Fremont and they (the herders) did not see any loot.
Between the legend and some documented accounts it is believed that the Wild Bunch buried the loot along the trail so they could return later once the excitement had subsided. It is reported that the loot was buried in a small valley overlooking Fish Lake. Based on the description of the area, somewhere along the Owl Hoot Trail is buried some $30,000 in gold coin and $60,000 in paper notes.
Fish Lake may not have been a hot spot during the Gold Rush days but thanks to legends like the Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy one still might be able to strike it rich.
Lake trout seem easier to find than gold and anglers have found a lot of them. However, getting them on one's hook isn't easy. As we made passes over Neil's favorite mackinaw holes we could see fish on the sounder; some big and some medium-size fish were down around the 60 to 66 foot level. Many were just off the bottom and a few were on the bottom. So were our lures � you could see and feel the lure touching bottom, as my rod tip would bend and then pull back.
I was surprised when Neil rigged up a hand line and began fishing with it as we trolled. I have fished with hand-lines before but never trolling for lake trout. I have seen a good friend rig up a hand-line, with a steel leader, in an attempt to catch a medium-size shard off the south coast of Australia. Australia was my first introduction to fishing with a hand-line. Most Aussie's use hand-lines, but only for deep sea fishing, from catching small bait fish to catching tuna. I know a few Aussie's that will not allow a rod and reel on their boat.
"I've never caught a fish using a rod and reel," Neil told me. Having used a hand-line before, I know that one gets a better feel when the fish takes the hook, but that was using monofilament line and not copper line like Neil was using. But as the light started to get better I could see that most of the anglers were using hand-lines. Two things made it obvious, the first being you would not see a rod sticking up out of the boat. The second, and not as obvious, the angler would have their arm over the side and would be pulling the line back and forth as they trolled. "Some people just let the line be pulled through the water but I like to pop the lure up and let it fall back," Neil said. He explained that most strikes happen as the lure is falling back. "You might have a fish following your lure for some time but he will not hit it. By popping the lure it could cause the fish to hit the lure because the lure has done something different," he said.
Neil has seen a decrease in the number of big fish being caught at Fish Lake. He believes that the main reason for this decline is year-round fishing. "This lake is not big enough to withstand that kind of fishing pressure, year after year," he said.
Sounders are wonderful inventions but they are very, very frustrating. It's one thing to be fishing and not knowing if there are fish around. But when you see the fish on the screen and know that your lure is at their depth and you still are not hooking them, one's level of frustration builds and builds. That is what we experienced, fish on the sounder, lures at their depth, and nothing on our lines.
I must say that we were not the only ones that did not catch anything. All other fisherman, except one, came in for breakfast saying the same thing, "We didn't get a bite".
Fish Lake is not the only fishing spot in this area. Numerous fishing spots abound, from reserviors like Koosharem, Forsyth and Mill Meadow, to small ponds and streams. Seven-Mile Creek and UM Creek are two streams that attract anglers in this area.
We ought to be thankful to President McKinley who, on February 10, 1899, reserved this area to protect Fish Lake and the Fremont River watershed. Today, Fish Lake Basin has a full range of services and facilities. There are three resorts, four campgrounds, seven picnic areas, and over 100 summer homes.
Fish Lake is not just for the fisherman. In the national forest one can find some of the largest deer and elk herds in the state. One of the best times to visit the Fish Lake Basin is in the fall. It is not uncommon to hear, in the crisp early morning or late evening, the haunting bugle calls of mature bull elk echoing through the mountains. Visitors report seeing elk, deer, moose and Rocky Mountain goats in the area.
In another several weeks, a visitor to Fish Lake should be able to experience the wonder of Mother Nature at her very best. The fall colours of vivid reds, yellows, and oranges against the green of the mountains is something that should not be missed.
After spending just a couple of days at Fish Lake one can fully understand why Neil Garret has continued to guide in the area for the past 15 years.