(Evolution of fishing at Willard Bay)
By Dave Webb
Willard Bay is on the mend! And that's good news for Utah anglers, particularly those that go after walleye.
Willard has been ailing for several years. The reservoir is home to a good number of fierce predators– walleye and channel cats–and they had literally eaten themselves to the brink of starvation, all but destroying the forage base in the water. The result was fewer and smaller fish every year.
Fisheries doctors gave Willard a shot of gizzard shad last year, and that looks like just the cure needed to turn the reservoir around. Gizzard shad can reproduce fast enough to keep up with the hungry walleye. They are an open-water fish that have saved walleye waters in other areas.
The only question was whether the shad could survive Utah's cold winter. And they did. The shad reproduced successfully last fall, survived the winter, and have fed a I lot of hungry walleye. Willard is on the road to recovery.
"Shad are showing up in more numbers than I expected," said Tom Pettengill, DWR fisheries manager for the Northern Region. DWR biologists conducted a population survey at the reservoir on March 19. 'We counted 140 shad in one-halfhour without any trouble. We also counted 39 walleye, which looked j really healthy."
The walleye were noticeably healthier than they have been in recent years. "They were just full of fat. We haven't seen fish in that condition in Willard for 20 years."
The DWR biologists took the sample close to a traditional spawning area. The walleye counted were males, ripe and ready to spawn. The males usually move into the spawning areas before the females arrive. Since no females were in the area, the spawn apparently had not yet started.
Walleye usually begin their spawn in earnest by March 20. Cold, stormy weather apparently delayed it a week or so this year. Pettengill said he expects the spawn to be going strong by the first week of April, and continue through the month.
Walleye fishing is usually very good during the spawn. The fish concentrate in rocky, shallow areas, where they are easy to find. They are aggressive and hungry.
At Willard, the north and west dikes are well known spawning areas, and attract good numbers of fishermen. The reservoir level is very low, but that isn't expected to have much effect on spawning location or success in the reservoir. (Low water may have a bigger impact in Utah Lake, where some spawning areas are actually out of the water.)
Boating is very difficult. 'We were hitting rocks with our motor at| trolling speed," Pettengill said.
Walleye fishing is best when the sun is off the water–early morning or late evening–and during the night. Boating is treacherous at those times. This is a good year to leave the boat home and fish from the dikes.
A good road follows the dikes out along the south and west aide of Willard. Get on it near Smith and Edwards, just north of Ogden. It's suitable for car. So you can drive out to the good fishing areas.
Walleye spawn in water anywhere from one to five feet deep. This year you can see down one or one-and-ahalf feet into the water, so the fish aren't likely to come in that close to shore.
Many fishermen like to get on a rock which jute out into the reservoir. From there you can work an area of water which extends in a half-circle around you. Move slowly along the dike until you find a spot with fish. Then zero in on that spot. Try to maneuver so you can cast parallel to the shore–that will allow you to keep your lure in the productive zone during the entire retrieval.
Minnow imitating lures are often productive. Pettengill said florescent orange and chartreuse colors are usually good. Use a floating lure– which dives when you reel in, then floats back toward the surface. Get it down so it almost brushes the top of the rocks.
Jigs and gitzits are also very effective. Put a yellow or white curly tail on a lead-head, or try a marabou type. Let the jig settle down toward the bottom, then pop it a couple times, reel in a bit, and let it fall again. Work it slowly and let it bump rocks occasionally. You will lose a few jigs this way, but you will catch more fish. Jigs are cheap.
It is often very difficult to detect a walleye strike on a jig. The fish just inhales the jig as it falls–so there is no tug on the line. Sometimes you feel a slight tick. Other times you don't feel anything, you just notice the jig has stopped when it should be falling. That's when you should raise the tip of your rod to see if a walleye is there.
A good rig for beginners drops a jig two or three feet below a bobber– low enough that it skims along the top of the rocks. The bobber allows you to work it very slowly, keeping it in the productive zone for a good long time. Wave action helps rock the jig and makes it look like a swimming minnow.
Sometimes it's productive to add a lure to the bobber rig. Trail the lure three or four feet behind the bobber, while the jig rides below.
Walleye fishing should be good along the dikes through the first couple weeks of April. Then it should start to taper off as fish complete the spawn and move out to the flats. The fish provide great sport throughout the year–not just during the spawn. But it's harder to find them when they are not concentrated near the spawning beds.
What does the future hold for Willard. "Our winters are so different, it's no telling what will happen next year," Pettengill said.
But all the signs point toward better and better fishing. Temperatures last winter were about as cold as they get, and the shad survived in good numbers. The reservoir iced over early, and that did provide some protection for the fish. Perhaps an extended period of cold without the protective ice could cause problems.
Nobody expects problems. In fact, the numbers are so good that the DWR will probably cancel a second shad inoculation scheduled for this summer. There's just no need to bring in more fish.
"I don't see any reason Willard can't produce females rivaling those from Utah Lake, Starvation and Deer Creek," Pettengill said. Female walleye grow bigger than the males. The state record, a 14-pound, 10ounce lurker, came out of Starvation in 1989. "The biggest males I've ever seen were about six pounds. I expect to see some four or five pound males in Willard within a couple years," he added.
The walleye spawn at willard will continue until about mid April then the walleye will begin to disperse throughout the reservoir.