There's fun and frustration available at Joes Valley Reservoir, traditionally one of Utah's best ice fishing waters.
Joes is producing good action for various kinds of trout, with a good number of larger fish available. But splake attract the most attention there, and now cause most of the frustration. Frustration because splake fishing is good but most of the fish are around 14-15 inches, just under the new 16-inch minimum size limit.
Everyone was catching fish when we visited the reservoir on January 14. One guy said he had caught 12 fish that morning, but none were of keepable size. He wasn't catching anything but splake, and was disappointed.
Another group had two big ones, one 16 and one 18 inches, along with a mess of nice rainbows (including a couple 18-inchers), and an albino rainbow. They were having a good time fishing, but were frustrated because most of the splake they caught were under size.
"It's going to be great next year," one guy said.
It will be great if people honor the new regulation, which is important to management at the reservoir. Conservation officers were patrolling the lake the morning we were there, and citing people who had kept smaller splake.
The new regulation is part of a last-ditch plan to rescue the reservoir from a growing chub problem. If the chubs go unchecked they will take over and destroy trout fishing — as they have in so many waters. If that happens the reservoir may need to be poisoned and restocked.
Splake are a cross between brook trout and lake trout, and adults are ravenous fish eating machines. Biologists think splake can control the chubs, if they can get enough adults into the reservoir. Splake switch to a mostly-fish diet when they are two years old — about 16 inches for the fast-growing critters. That means they must be protected through two winters. Thus the special regulation.
Splake are fairly easy to catch through the ice, and so the population is vulnerable to fishing pressure. In past years few Joes Valley splake have lived to see their third winter. Those that do are big and fun to catch.
If this management plan works, Joes Valley will be a remarkable fishery. The rainbows and cutthroats there will do better because there will be little competition from chubs, and splake fishing will be great, with a lot of large fish to be caught. It's worth giving it a couple years to see how things play out.
Meanwhile, ice fishing is good and the reservoir warrants a visit. The number of people fishing has dropped off since the regulation went into effect, and that's too bad. Enjoy the fishing there — it's great. Just remember to release splake quickly and carefully, so they can live to eat chubs and then be caught again another day.
Avoid using treble hooks, because they are difficult to remove without injuring the fish. If possible, keep the fish mostly in the water while you pop out the hook. Don't flop the fish onto the ice, and don't handle it with gloves. If you don't think you can remove the hook without harming the fish, just snip your line and release the fish, hook still in mouth. The hook will quickly dissolve.
Studies show fish will probably die if they are kept out of the water for very long, and then released. About 77% die if they are exposed to air for a minute or longer. Such deaths defeat the whole purpose of the regulation.
A meal worm on an ice fly, jig or spoon is probably the best producer at Joes. Minnows are also effective, and may produce more large fish. Most splake are caught just off the bottom, in water 20-40 feet deep, although they sometimes range into shallow water near inlets.
There was about a foot of snow over seven inches of hard ice when we visited the reservoir. There was deep slush near inlets.
Joes is located in a beautiful valley on the east side of the Skyline Drive, above the town of Orangeville in Central Utah, about three hours from Salt Lake City. The road is paved to the marina, which has a good boat ramp. There's a developed campground by the marina, plus plenty of opportunity for primitive camping.
Cottonwood Creek, which flows through Straight Canyon below Joes Valley, sometimes offers good fishing for browns. It's a pretty stream with lots of big, deep holes. It could be a great fishery if adequate water flows could be insured.