(Published Aug, 2002, Utah Outdoors magazine)
By Cris Draper
For me, there is nothing quite like watching from a boat as the first shining rays from the rising sun break over the ridge top. It seems to make all the pressure of modern life drift away and soothe the day-to-day headaches of urbanized society with a magical sense of relaxation. Then add in the company of family and friends, combined with a good day of actually catching fish and you have heaven on earth.
July found me doing just that with my 11-year-old daughter, Karissa, out of Sheep Creek Bay on Flaming Gorge. Fishing guide Bruce Parker of Conquest Expeditions (435-784-3370) and his boat hand, Kyle Edwards (801-244-9948), took us out for a day on the Gorge, which is one of my favorite fishing spots.
I have been to Flaming Gorge many times, both as a child and an adult, and with each visit I gain new knowledge and a renewed understanding of just what a special resource this great reservoir is in northeastern Utah. It is one of my top destinations when planning a trip outdoors or a family outing. Flaming Gorge has become a premiere trophy lake trout water; with fish over 50 pounds setting both Utah and Wyoming state records. Referred to by many as the “Gorge,” this lake is one of three waters that hold trophy “mackinaw” lake trout here in Utah. Fish Lake and Bear Lake are the other places to catch these magnificent trophy-class fish.
We did not catch any trophies this trip, but I will not soon forget an outing 15 years ago with my father when I had the opportunity to catch a 30.25 pound wall hanger lake trout that I still look at daily hanging on my office wall. I long to tie into another one of these monster size trophies. Although we didn’t land any giants this time, the fishing for smaller lake trout, 2-4 pound kokanee salmon, and a nice 3.5 pound rainbow, was definitely worth ever mile of the drive from Salt Lake City.
Begging at the crack of dawn is often necessary to catch trophy fish. My daughter may not have agreed as I was waking her up at 1 a.m., but once we got on the boat and she landed her first 4-pound-plus kokanee, she quickly decided that seeing the sunrise from the boat and the long drive were worth the lost sleep.
Karissa has caught fish on the many trips we have taken as a family, but this was her first guided trip and I am confident it will only be the first of many she will take in her lifetime.
Flaming Gorge can be an intimating and often frustrating fishery for those that drag their boat up for the weekend and have little experience fishing its 91 miles of coves and bays. Having a successful trip to the Gorge often requires many hours of study to learn when and how-to fish it. Don’t get me wrong, you will more than likely catch fish on your first few trips out, but without truly understanding the habits of the fish and knowing where to begin, it can be more luck than skill that puts fish on your hook.
Another factor in being successful on the lake is having the right gear. Fishing from a boat using downriggers, leaded line or jigging are the most productive methods during most of the year. Other than early spring or during iced-over winter months, using this type of equipment is almost always the best way to get into fish on a regular basis.
Spring is a great time to fish for big lake trout because the fish are spread out and feeding actively; they are sometimes found near the surface from ice-off until the water begins to warm up. Once a lake trout reaches about the 2-pound range, they feed almost entirely on other fish. Large lures that imitate baitfish, like Rapalas, flat fish or large spoons, are good choices for tackling the trophies. During the spring you can fish them just under the surface, without the need for specialized gear.
Once the water warms up with the summer heat, the big lake trout head deep in search of cooler water. They prefer water temperatures around 60 degrees or cooler and tend to stay there till late fall. Having a fish finder to help locate these suspended fish is definitely a plus. Vertical jigging, once you locate fish, can produce good results. You can also troll using a downrigger or leaded line.
Lake trout spawn in the fall months and early winter. Look near rocky shoals at depths of around 20 feet to find concentrations of fish. If you are having problems locating fish, look for other anglers concentrated in one area and you will more than likely find fish.
Plankton-feeding kokanee are usually easy to catch and also great tasting dinner treats. Plankton is light sensitive. Concentrations can be found at depths of about 20 feet in the early morning and it moves deeper as the sun comes up. The kokanee follow. Try starting your morning fishing in the 20-40 foot range and then as the fishing begins to slow, move down to deeper depths around 40-100 feet. Kokanee action can be fast and furious at times. These fish are great fighters and often break the surface while you are reeling them in, making for big fun and a great visual experience to boot! Try using small spoons and spinners.
Mature kokanee turn a red color and spawn during the fall. Some spawn in the larger streams and stage near the stream mouths, beginning in August. Some kokanee are reservoir-spawners and do not stage until later in the fall. August and September are great months to catch large kokanee, just before the big fish hit spawning mode.
Smallmouth bass fishing has really becoming a fantastic addition at Flaming Gorge and should not be overlooked. Smallmouth tend to grow slower in the cold waters of the lake, but an abundant population is waiting for those wishing to search out the warmer areas of the lake and toss in a few bass lures. Try fishing the shallow coves and inlets with rocky structure for the best success. Harvesting a few of these from the lake will actually help benefit the fishery as a whole, so take a few home with you for dinner!
Overall, Flaming Gorge is an often-overlooked spot when fisherman are planning trips, but offers many great hours of fishing for anglers each year. There is plenty of room as well as peace and quite to be found here and it is hard to beat the fishing opportunities. I’ll be heading back a few more times this season in search of another big lake trout.
With the size of the kokanee we caught, I would not be surprised at all to see the current 6-pound kokanee record fall this year.