A rugged backpacking trip to the Uintas, a Lake Powell houseboat quest for stripers, and the annual spawning run at Strawberry are all outings that bring to mind the best of family fishing trips. However, few families in Utah reminisce about an incredible bass fishing adventure, but some dads are now uncovering one of Utah's best kept secrets for family angling – Flaming Gorge smallmouth.
Serious bassers often catch and release 50 to 100 fish per day, but you don't need to be an expert to reach that level of success.
"As far as sheer numbers of fish, it's the best lake in the state," says Gary Naylor of American Fork.
In their first attempt years ago, the Naylor family boated so many fish at the Gorge that they returned twice the next year for special smallmouth outings.
The hey-day for smallmouth has been long in coming at the slowly warming waters of the Gorge where the growing season is a brief 90 days. Steve Brayton, DWR project leader for Flaming Gorge, says smallies were introduced in 1967 largely for controlling chubs and suckers. Since then, smallmouth have flourished while curbing the nongame fish and feeding on an abundance of their favorite food – crawdads.
"The crawdad population does fluctuate a little, but it is outstanding most years," Brayton explains.
On one outing, the Naylor family became curious about the crawdad population so they hiked down to the shoreline one night.
"We turned on the flashlights and there were tons of them. They were everywhere. Some were as big as seven inches long."
In the 70s, the young smallmouth multiplied and made their way up Red Canyon toward Lucerne Bay. Then, at the pipeline, explains Brayton, they just seemed to stop.
"Wyoming was interested in having their share of smallmouth and so in 1980 their fisheries people captured some and transported them to the top of the lake. Some of the fish traveled back down to Utah and so they continued to transport fish until 1985."
Brayton says Wyoming officials concentrated on trapping the huge clouds of new-born smallmouth, known as "black fry," for transportation purposes. Now an angler can go just about anywhere on Flaming Gorge and encounter smallmouth.
While tournament anglers claim that the Wyoming fish are bigger, the Utah side still has the numbers of fish that kids enjoy.
Another reason for the population boom is the lack of competition from other fish. Brayton says that while the lake's mackinaw (lake trout) and rainbows are open water fish, smallmouth typically hug shoreline cover – which makes them easier for bank fishermen to catch. Smallmouth and trout trade water levels but don't often interact.
"There's a little bit of overlap, but it's pretty insignificant," says Brayton.
Forget all about the TV show where you saw Hank Parker wing a 1/2 ounce buzzbait into a moss bed. Smaller rods, reels and lures are the norm at the Gorge. In fact, your faithful six-foot spinning rod is considered ideal for this trip. Serious bassers also use the lighter outfits in the competitive tournaments.
The clear water smallmouth are largely sight feeders, so a thin diameter six pound line should help you finess them out of the boulders.
Generally, if you grab a handful of curly-tailed grubs in assorted colors and a crankbait or two, you and your kids are set to chase ol' Mr. Bronzeback – which many anglers and biologists argue is the scrappiest fish that swims.
"I like a three inch grub on a 1/8 ounce leadhead. Anything with a green tint to it works well, but I've seen them caught on about any color," says Buzz Shiner of the Uintah Basin Bassmasters, based in Vernal. Shiner has frequented the lake over the years, often with the company of his son and daughter. His teenage daughter perfected her technique and then entered one of the buddy tournaments run by the Utah B.A.S.S. Federation.
"She ended up catching the big fish of the tournament," braggs Shiner, "The fish weighed nearly three pounds."
Shiner says anglers should cast the grubs up shallow and then hop them slowly into deeper water.
"When they [the bass] pick it up it feels like there's a leaf or something on your lure. Set the hook."
The spawn usually occurs in early June and the fish stay active through September. Naylor takes his family during June, July or August – what he calls the "fabulous" months.
"I like to tell people about my 5 year old daughter who had absolutely no fishing experience. She'd never even cast a lure before. Pretty soon she was catching bass. She even started detecting the strike. I just quit fishing and started watching her. You should see her, she just squeals."
Naylor says there are two trips he can always get his family excited about. One is Pineview for crappie and the other is Flaming Gorge for smallmouths.
"The first time we caught 83 fish between the four of us in just five hours of fishing. Then I took my brother and his family the next time. He'd had little experience with bass fishing. They had a riot just catching fish after fish. Most of the bass fall in the 8 to 10 inch category, but there's always a few larger fish."
Naylor says the small, bankrunner fish stay in the 1 to 7 foot range, so serious anglers should fish slower and deeper to concentrate on bigger fish.
"You really can catch fish until your arms get tired. It's not uncommon to get five hits while the grub is falling."
Naylor's choices for grub colors include green, purple and June bug. To cover water more quickly, anglers often use small, deep-diving crankbaits. Naylor prefers the Poe's cerise #1100, but a number of other plugs work well including Rapala's Fat Rap and Rebel's Deep Wee-R.
It's hard to miss on the Utah side with so many eloping, rocky banks to choose from, but there are a few areas that are better than others.
"It's especially good around Mustang Ridge. Anyone can catch fish there," says Shiner, "Look for points and beaches that have gravel."
Anglers typically don't have to go far from the ramp or campsite to find fish. "You can find them about anywhere, but Bear Creek, Allen Creek and Jarvie's Canyon are especially good," explains Naylor, about the coves that lie within a mile of the Cedar Springs boat ramp.
"Broken rock at a 45 degree angle with some sand mix seems to be the best. I also like isolated boulders at the mouths of coves. Slide your grub off the boulder and you've got a fish on." Naylor says the cracks in sheer walls can also be productive.
Mustang Ridge, Dutch John and Sheep Creek are areas where anglers can effectively fish from the shore. Boats equipped with electric trolling motors are best for positioning and casting to shoreline targets. If you have a boat but don't have an electric motor, check the wind direction and then find a likely area where you can drift parallel to shoreline cover.
If you're at the Gorge trolling circles around uncooperative trout, a trip toward the shoreline smellier can be a delightful alternative. Flaming Gorge is considered by many to be the ideal spot for someone who just wants to get his or her feet wet with bass fishing and to develop some real confidence.
It's always good to practice catch-and-release on predators like bass, but the fish here are so numerous that special regulations have been put into effect to encourage the harvest of smaller fish.
Take a few of the smaller fish home with you (they're great eating) and release the larger fish.
If you feel disadvantaged from shore, you may want to rent a boat. Almost all the marinas rent them. This will give you more range and, more importantly, maneuverability.
Kids get excited when not much time passes between each nibble. And if you've fished for smallmouths at Flaming Gorge, chances are you had little competition from other anglers, even if you went on a holiday weekend. You and your kids don't need a lot of gear or experience to be successful. Planning a family fishing trip often involves choosing a place where there will be less fishing and more catching. Surprisingly, Flaming Gorge might just be the state's best spot.