Ice fishing is one of the best ways to take the big cutthroat at Bear Lake.
BEAR LAKE – It's big cutthroat time – with an occasional lake trout thrown in – at Bear Lake, one of Utah's most underutilized fishing resources.
The end of the cisco run traditionally signals the start of great cutthroat fishing at the big lake. And while the fishing is seldom extremely fast, the attraction of Bear Lake is the size of the lunker trout lurking in the depths.
In other words, a trip to Bear Lake may not produce a quick limit of pansize fish. But it may produce a trophy fish or two, trout bigger than many Utah fishermen have ever caught in their lives.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, a group of Wasatch Front fishermen left the Salt Lake area in cold, gray, snowy weather and found sunshine, warmth – and fish – at Bear Lake. The sun broke out on the top of the mountain after leaving Logan and everyone in the group harvested sunburns before the day was over. It was the first time some of us had seen the sun for months – and that alone was enough to make the trip worthwhile.
While the fishing could never be described as particularly fast, most groups near Sweetwater at least had some fish, a mixture of cutthroat and whitefish, with a few snagged cisco and a smattering of lake trout. A variety of techniques seemed to work, from jigging with a bare spoon to using a Kastmaster or mack attack (lead-head jig with a fat gitzit) tipped with a piece of cisco tail.
Most important seemed to be location. A half mile or so off the Sweetwater shore is a structure known as the "rockpile." People having the best success seemed to have holes right above some of the structure. Some of the rest of us (including me) had less success and couldn't seem to find the right spot.
Bryce Nielsen, chief fisheries biologist at Bear Lake, said it pays to move around and try new holes and spots.
Gilbert Parker, from Garden City, seemed to have a particularly good hole. He caught a gorgeous cutthroat, around five pounds, on a silver Daredevil-type spoon. He didn't use any bait on the tip, just jigged it vigorously periodically. He had a nice mess of whitefish, also.
A group from Logan had good success using kastmasters and swedish pimples tipped with cisco meat, said Dan Fox from Surplus Savers in Logan. They caught fish ranging from 3-5 pounds in water 60 feet deep. The larger fish were in deeper water 80 feet plus.
Neilsen said the lake has 12-18 inches of ice and a half foot to a foot of snow. Where to fish is anybody's guess. Sweetwater is a popular spot. Areas of Cisco Beach on the east side is another good spot. But Bear Lake is such a big water that literally hundreds of good ice fishing spots no doubt exist. Obviously, spots with structure below are the best locations.
Bear Lake is a fine trophy fishery, but in warm weather a good boat and sophisticated electronic gear are almost a necessity. This time of year, anyone can gain access to the big fish. It is not a good shore fishery in the spring or summer, so this is a good time for someone without a lot of expensive gear to try for a big fish.
Nielsen said lots of different methods are being found to catch fish. Even nightcrawlers and wax and meal worms are being used. Nielsen said fairly early in the morning seems to be the best time to catch fish, although the trout seem to bite most of the day, until about 4 p.m. Whitefishing seems to slow after midday. Bear Lake is still new enough as a winter fishery that a lot more experimentation is needed on methods and locations and even depths. Most anglers fish in fairly deep water, but Nielsen said that's not to say that fish don't exist in much shallower areas. Oxygen is good at all depths, he said. On other lakes, some of the best ice fishing is found in 15-20 feet. Not enough ice fishing has been done of Bear Lake to really know all the answers. One thing to be concerned about when fishing at great depths is the stretch in fishing line. Line played out 80 to or 100 feet has enough stretch in it, especially the lower pound tests, to require a big jerk to set a hook.
One excellent place to fish is over weed beds. The weed beds capture cisco eggs that drift around the lake and the bigger whitefish and trout congregate there.
The cutthroat range from 16 inches to seven pounds, with some bigger lake trout up to 15 pounds. Some cisco are still being jigged up and mostly used for bait. The limit on trout is six, with no more than two lake trout or more than two fish larger than 16 inches. Because almost all trout are over 16 inches, most fishermen are finished when they've caught two trout. You can keep trying, of course, but you must release any more trout over 16 inches.
Bear Lake fishermen ought to be aware that the cutthroat they catch are the pure Utah native cutthroat, a strain of the Bonneville cutthroat. A couple different strains of cutthroat are the only real native Utah trout. All others are imported.
Nielsen, who has dedicated 15 years to managing Bear Lake fisheries, said the turning point in the big lake came when DWR biologists began to emphasize use of the native cutthroat. Since then, fishing has improved considerably and cutthroat eggs are harvested for use elsewhere in the state. Nielsen can remember when fewer than 500 fish were taken in a season at Bear Lake. Now the catch is around 10,000 and it is still underutilized.
The majority of Bear Lake trout are taken in the winter by fishermen. It has become a better winter fishery than summer fishery. People who learn to fish the lake become addicted to it, Nielsen said, especially because of the trophy fish available. Once you've caught a few seven-pounders, it's tough to go back to eight-inch panfish.