There are a zillion tiny "fiddler" catfish in Willard Bay and they hit lures and baits so often they become a nuisance. But there are also big cats in the Bay – so big and so ugly they could scare the slime right off a nightcrawler.
Fish weighing in at 8-10 pounds are commonly caught and 18-pounders show up regularly. The state record is a 32-pound 8-ounce fish taken from Utah Lake in 1978. Without a doubt, a fish swimming in Willard right now will break that record, and September may be the month to catch it.
Wipers – a cross between striped bass and white bass – are also providing great sport at the Bay and they are getting bigger and bigger every month. The fish are growing so fast that the state record is broken regularly. It's gotten to the point that many wiper fishermen don't even bother reporting a record fish. Why should they when they will probably catch a bigger one on their next trip. As of this writing, the official record stands at 5 lb 15 oz, but many larger fish have already been caught and released.
Bill Furniss, owner of Bill's Trucks & Boats in Ogden (801-627-6833), recently invited me to go fishing for the big cats and wipers. I jumped at the chance because Bill's a fun fishing partner and because I always learn a lot when I fish with him.
Bill's philosophy is to never let business interfere with fishing, but he had a hard time getting away that day. "We'll take the Expedition," he said as he directed his people to hook his boat to the big SUV. Then his cell phone rang and he talked for a minute. "Cancel that," he said. "I just sold the Expedition! Hook up the red Suburban." After another phone call and another vehicle change, we headed up I-15 in a Chevy truck. "I just can't keep an Expedition on the lot," he said.
It was about 5:30 p.m. when we launched at the North Marina. "Hold onto your hat," he said as we blasted toward the west dike. The boat skimmed across the pond at 67 mph and I thought the breeze was going to blow the freckles right off my face. A couple minutes later we were fishing, concentrating on an area along the west dike just north of the light pole.
To handle big fish you need heavy equipment, right? Not when you fish with Bill. We used medium-action rods rigged with eight-pound super monofilament line. "You'll catch more fish using light tackle," he said. "Lighter line lets your bait or lure move in a more natural manner."
We were targeting catfish first so we pushed nightcrawlers onto weedless hooks, using a small bullet weight just in front of the hook. "Bring the hook down through the crawler's head, thread on enough to cover the straight part of the hook, then bring the barb out," Bill said. When threaded correctly the crawler will hang straight - it won't curve with the bend of the hook. Again, you want to make the bait look as natural as possible.
We used an electric motor to move slowly along the dike, staying about 20 feet offshore. We cast into the dike ahead of the boat then worked the crawler in and out of the rocks at the base of the dike.
It was easy to feel the hook bumping against rocks. Now and then it would hang up for a second but usually popped free as the line tightened.
We got bites every couple casts and reeled in fish every few minutes. Most were small but a few were decent sized. Nothing huge, but we had fun and caught a lot of fish.
Hooking catfish is not difficult if you allow time for a fish to move the bait to the back of its mouth, or to turn with the bait. The fish have a bony structure at the front of their mouths that is hard for a hook to penetrate.
It was a stormy evening with rain threatening. After a few minutes a stiff breeze came up and started to blow the boat at a brisk clip. Our success slowed because we were moving so fast the bait didn't have time to settle into the rocks, and the fish didn't have time to eat the bait. So we changed tactics.
Bill went to a neutral buoyancy crankbait (minnow-imitating lure), which he threw right up against the rocks. He'd jerk it and it would dive, then he'd pause and it would hold its position (not sinking or floating up). He repeated this jerk/pause pattern, the lure moving deeper with every jerk as he worked it down the dike. Fish often hit when the lure paused. When working the dike in this way Bill often catches catfish, smallmouth, walleye and wipers.
He uses jigs in much the same manner, with similar results. He smears anchovy Smelly Jelly onto his lures and jigs. "Just put it on the body of the jig," he said. "Don't put it on the tentacles of tube jigs or they will stick together. The tentacles need to flutter - an action that attracts fish. You want to appeal to all of the fish's senses - sight, smell, taste, vibration."
I switched to a bottom-walking sinker rig and trolled it behind the boat. The sinker was heavy enough to drop in and out of the rocks on the bottom while the bait skimmed just above the rocks. The rig allows line to play through the sinker without resistance when a fish picks up the bait. A swivel keeps the sinker from sliding down onto the bait. I used a couple feet of leader, then a regular hook, and alternated between crawlers and shrimp.
We both continued to catch fish but action was a little slower than it had been before the wind. We caught the most fish out a short distance into the lake but found bigger fish right at the base of the dike.
I caught more fish on crawlers than on shrimp. Action was best when I used both baits simultaneously on the same hook.
Catfish action picks up in the late spring when the water warms into the upper 50s. At that time success is often best in the shallow bays on the east side, because water there warms up faster than the rest of the reservoir.
Big catfish spawn in holes and crevices along the dikes from abut May 20 through June 20. At that time the big fish become very aggressive and readily hit Rapalas.
When the heat of summer sets in the big cats move into deeper water. Most of the deeper spots are along the west dike, but there are some good areas along the east side and out from the South Marina.
Fishing for the big cats should stay good through September, until the water becomes cool.
In general, the best catfish action is within 20 yards of shore. People fishing from the dikes often cast right over them into unproductive water.
Wipers are one of the first fish to start biting at Willard in the spring and the last to give up the bite in the fall. Action should be very good this year during September and October.
Wipers are an open-water predator and in Willard gizzard shad are their primary prey. Wiper fishing is often best in the spring, before the first young-of-the-year shad are big enough to eat, and in the fall after the last hatch has started to thin out.
Trolling is an effective way to catch wipers most of the year. Troll shad-imitating lures at 1-2 miles per hour. Willard is so shallow that lures don't need to go deep - downriggers or leaded line are not needed. At Willard the fish are use to boat traffic - a boat doesn't scare them much - but fish right in the boat's path may stop biting for a time. Avoid that problem by trolling in an S or circular pattern so your lures do not follow directly behind the boat, or use planer boards to move them out to the sides of the boat.
Wipers range freely throughout the reservoir - you can catch them anywhere. But they seem to congregate in some areas: around the humps near the reservoir outlet, out from the trees along the east dike south of the North Marina, and near the submerged island out from the South Marina.
During late summer the wipers "boil" on the surface, just as stripers boil at Lake Powell. A group of wipers "herd" shad into a cove or against some kind of structure, then attack the trapped fish. The shad frantically try to escape, sometimes jumping completely out of the water, with wipers in hot pursuit. The frenzy disturbs the water, making it appear to boil. Fish will often hammer a shad-imitating lure as it is retrieved through the disturbance.
Wiper boils at Willard can be large and last more than an hour.
Wipers always hit hard and fight ferociously. Catching several fish from a boil is great sport - one of the most exciting fishing opportunities available anywhere.
Boils often attract fish-eating birds (gulls and others). If you see birds diving into the water, you can bet they are working a boil. Race to that spot, cut your motor so you glide to a stop along the disturbance, then cast so you can retrieve your lure through it. Boils often occur right in the North Marina about dusk during the late summer. They are common just outside the North Marina, and in the bay to the south.
Keep a loose drag when fishing for wipers. A large wiper can easily break monofilament line when it hits, unless your pole bends to soften the strike and your drag plays out line.
Kastmasters and Krocodiles are popular when fishing the boils because they are heavy and can be cast further than most other lures. Anything that resembles a minnow and is silver, gray or blue will take fish. Spinnerbaits and jigs can also be effective.
Rapalas, Rat-L-Traps and crank baits can be trolled effectively.