I'm wondering if you'd be interested in some follow up? I voiced concerns and questions about management at Fish Lake, which were published in your August 5, 1996, issue, in the Letters to the Editor column. In your response and at my request you provided me with the address of the DWR Southern Region of fice, and Dale Hepworth, fisheries manager. I've had the opportunity to correspond with him, and I'd like to relay some of the information he passed along to me.
First, I must say that I really thought the DWR was just going along with whatever happened at Fish Lake, and that as long as they could use it to get the eggs they wanted, and people were boating some rainbows, they would be content to let "it" happen. It appears, however, that they are genuinely concerned about many aspects of game fishing at Fish Lake, and the lake is a very complex system - with lots of variables. Some they have a handle on (or think they do), some they surely do not.
The illegal introduction of perch seems to be impacting the lake the most right now. I was surprised to find out that perch were first discovered in Fish Lake in the '60s! Why have they mushroomed to the population they are at now? Who knows? I was distressed to find out that they are now finding schools of big, fat carp in the lake. No doubt the result of someone underestimating the survivability of some half-dead carp minnows they were using for bait. (Make sure they are dead!) These serve as examples of some of the difficulties the biologists are trying to come to grips with. Each affects the other, and the ripple effect carries through the whole chain.
For example:, the deep test nets that used to collect Utah chubs in good numbers (which were forage for the large lake trout) now turn up few to none! It appears that by the time the chub fry run the shalow water perch gauntlet there aren't many left! But the perch love it! The problem is that fewer lake trout can grow to trophy size on the reduced forage base.
The number of lake trout isn't the problem, and they apparently don't have to achieve large sizes to remain a viable, healthy population. Samplings they take while taking eggs show that there is a large number of lake trout in Fish Lake, it's just that the far greater number is stuck in the 18-24" size range, waiting to convert to a fish based diet that will let them get big. Biologists would absolutely love to find out what triggers the change to the fish diet, that allows the fish to grow so large. Any ideas?
It's the consistently good numbers of naturally spawned lake trout that show up year after year at egg taking time that led to the end of planting hatchery-raised lake trout in Fish Lake. The biologists felt that the "bucket" was already full, so to speak, the lake can only hold so many.
I can attest to the fact that we have had no problem catching the lake trout in this 18-24 inch range, but back to the big fish. While they have kept records on the number of eggs taken each fall since the '60s, they have recorded the sizes of the fish only since 1992, when Louis Berg began recording the sizes. (It's too bad they didn't have the foresight to do it way back then.) I don't know how they do it, but from this information they "guess" that there are approximately 2,000 large lake trout (over 28") in Fish Lake. (Dale was very cautious to specify a number - take it for what it's worth.) They are guardedly optimistic that this number has been fairly consistent for quite some time. Dale mentioned that reviewing the old records, the biologists responsible them felt that there were approximately that many large lake trout then, too. Since 1992 the size of the fish appears to be stable.
Dale told me that during spawning last fall they looked at 226 lake trout over 24 inches, and that most were 32-36 inches long, some over 40 inches. They recognize the value of these large fish, and most were released unharmed. Only a few were milked. The biologists feel there is a good number of larger fish still available in Fish Lake, and the lodge owner is happy with the total number of big lake trout he has seen taken.
How do you get them to bite???
Dale mentioned another thing I hadn't considered. Has the number of people competing for these fish gone way up? I know there are those who remember when "you could walk across Fish Lake on the boats." At opening time you couldn't stay on the Mac runs because of the competition. I wonder if the year-round fishing is equal to or greater than opening day pressure - just spread out? The fact is the population in Utah (entire state) was around 500,000 not so long ago. Now? Around 2,000,000. If what the lodge owner said is true, is the same number of big fish comung in, just divided between more people? Dale's advice to me on catching a big lake trout. "Put in a lot of hours!"
Dale seemed to be happy with the way the rainbow are responding to their latest attempt to get them to a good, catchable size. It looks like planting them at a larger size is working. Reading between the lines, it's my opinion that rainbow fishing will continue to pick up over the next few years.
The splake are doing fine. I did learn a few things about them. It's interesting, so I'll pass it along. Splake inhabit a shallower water area than do lake trout. It would seem they would be ideally positioned to prey on the perch. Splake convert to a fish diet less readily than do lake trout, though. So, don't expect large numbers of huge splake, but there are some. The DWR is mounting a 16 pound splake that was taken in a net sample. Too bad they don't convert more readily! They do prey on the perch better than the rainbows.
I asked Dale about the dead fish I'd heard were found after the DWR had been doing some activities at the lake. Here's his explanation. They probably didn't come from the milked fish. (Dale said he saw only one mortality while milking fish last fall.) However, the hatchery fish they bring in for the other half of the process sometimes don't stand up to handling very well. The choice is to put them in the lake, whatever their chance of survival, or remove them and dispose of them away from the lake. So far, the DWR personnel have put them in the lake, figuring any that survived would just add to the diversity for the angler. Also, in the spring of the year hatchery broodstock that are no longer required are usually planted in Fish Lake. (It's close to Egan Hatchery, where most brood-stock come from). These fish don't handle the transport or planting well, but those which survive give anglers a chance for a very large fish. The mortality seems justified. These fish are better stocked into the lake than dumped ito a hole in the ground. Some are going to survive and add to the angling experience. Gill net sampling may also account for some dead fish. Gill nets usually snag larger fish by the nose and teeth. The fish that appear unharmed are released.
Last of all, how about a fishing update? We tried ice fishing at Fish Lake on the 29th of December. The ice was 4-5 inches thick and extremely hard and clear. We were at the south end, and found the splake very willing. For about 45 minutes you couldn't get your bait in the hole fast enough for them! When it slowed down it was still fast enough to keep you interested. I firmly believe that you'd never have to go home skunked. Just auger a hole at the edge of the weed bed. The depth should be between 4 and 12 feet. You'll find that the perch will hit all day, no matter what the trout feel like. Hang on though, many times our biggest fish of the trip comes from the perch hole! This is really fun for the little kids, kids who think they don't like to fish, and beginners. I encourage you to keep all the perch you catch. With a little practice they are very easy to fillet, and are really tasty! Give it a try!
Sincerely, Ron Anderson, Centerfield, UT
P.S. Keeping all the perch can only help at Fish Lake. Also, I was pleased to see the limit reduced on the Boulder and the size limitations as outlined in the new proclamation.
Editor's response: Thanks for a great letter. When you get to know those DWR guys, you discover some of them are almost human. Anyone who knows Dale Hepworth knows he loves Fish Lake and Boulder Mountain, and that he is doing his best to enhance fishing throughout the southern region.
I'll see you on Fish Lake this summer. I'll be putting in my hours, looking for a big one.