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Fixing Round Willow Bottom

It's a pretty little lake on the south end of Boulder Mountain, with sapphire water surrounded by basalt boulders, towering pines and quaking aspen.

As I approached I saw a number of rings made by purposing trout and so I expected fishing to be good. On my second cast I had a hit, but I missed it. Subsequent casts produced many strikes – sometimes several hits on a single retrieval – and a good number of hookups. Within a few minutes I knew it was going to be one of those days when the 1.5-mile hike away from the road would bring solitude and fast fishing.

The fish eagerly attacked any fly I presented – pattern selection made little difference. Black woolly buggers with flashabou, black woolly worms with red tails, dark-colored leeches, renegades, ants – they all generated strikes. Large flies produced plenty of hits but it was hard to hook the fish. Smaller sizes worked better. I also experimented with lures and found that most were effective. My best was a 1/16-ounce Panther Martin (black blade with green spots and a red-and-yellow body).

Paradise? Hardly. My first fish was a skinny 7-incher, and things went downhill from there. I found that brook trout are abundant but tiny in the lake, most running between five and seven inches. They have the big heads and skinny bodies that typify stunted fish. The brookies in the lake reproduce so prolifically that they have overrun the habitat. They find enough food to survive and reproduce, but not enough to thrive.

I expected to find small fish in the reservoir. I was fishing Round Willow Bottom, one of 18 Boulder Mountain lakes where chemical treatment has been proposed to eliminate fish populations so more manageable species can be introduced. I wanted to see for myself the extent of the problem.

Chemical treatment always seems like a radical measure. Kill all of the fish – every one of them – then introduce a species that is better suited to that water. But similar treatments have been used repeatedly in Utah and almost always produce a more healthy fish population and better sport fishing. Such a treatment turned Strawberry around and resulted in the exceptional fishery we enjoy today.

Still, I cringe when I hear about a proposed treatment - particularly when the desire is to eliminate a population of sport fish. I always wonder, "Isn't there some other way?" In the case of Round Willow Bottom, a small reservoir offering fast fishing, I wondered if increased publicity might attract more anglers who could be encouraged to catch and harvest more fish.

But now, having seen the extent of the problem for myself, I support the Division of Wildlife Resources and Forest Service plan to treat the reservoir to improve the fishery. For years the DWR has promoted Round Willow Bottom as a great place to take kids where you can be all but certain they will catch fish. But despite that publicity, angling pressure hasn't come close to solving the problem, and it isn't likely to do so in the future. The fishing is fast but the reservoir attracts only light pressure because the brookies are so small.

Boulder Mountain is one of my favorite places on earth. I cringe at the thought of so many reservoirs being treated, even though I know the plan, if approved, will be implemented over the period of year. But I support the treatment plan, and encourage others to do the same.

Dale Hepworth is the DWR manager in charge of fisheries in Utah's Southern Region. I've known Dale for more than a decade and I know he loves Boulder Mountain as much as I do. He has assured me that the trophy brook trout lakes on the mountain will not be affected – that the long-term management plan is to preserve the big brookies that have made the area famous. The waters proposed for treatment have been providing marginal fishing and will certainly be improved if the plan is implemented. Under the proposal, some of the waters will be stocked with the cutthroat that were native to the area.