Years of planning and hard work are culminating at Strawberry Reservoir right now, as native cutthroat trout begin to spawn in the restored tributaries.
The fish are ahead of schedule. Good numbers of spawners weren't expected until next spring. Overall, Strawberry is doing fantastic, rapidly returning to its position as the most popular fishing spot in the state.
"We've got spawners in Trout Creek, Strawberry (River) and Indian Creek," said Roger Wilson, DWR project leader at Strawberry. "We expected some early spawning, but we are really surprised by the numbers in there. We are seeing some ripe females in the traps, and in our gill nets, and so we are probably going to get some effective spawning activity this year. And that's super. Next year we should have really good spawning. We'll have things set up for a good year next year."
The spawning cutthroats are large fish, and they are attracting some attention. "We are having some trouble with illegal fishing activity, and guys trying to remove fish," Wilson said. The tributaries are closed completely to fishing this year. Some people are even wading into the streams trying to net or grab fish. "They are big, nice, 2.5 pound fish, and I guess that's too much of a temptation for some folks," Wilson said.
Conservation officers are patrolling the streams, and giving out citations.
Spawning activity traditionally begins at Strawberry during the end of May, and continues until the mid or latter part of June.
One of the DWR's big pushes the last two years has been to restore the tributaries so they provide effective spawning habitat. Trout Creek has always been in pretty good shape and it provides excellent spawning habitat. Indian Creek now has some nice habitat. A lot of work has been done on the Strawberry River, and it should be ready for the fish.
The goal is to produce 10 million cutthroat fry in the tributaries each year. It will take time to build to that level, but we are well on the way. At that time Strawberry will be self-sustaining — producing all the small fish it needs to maintain good fishing.
Biologists are taking samples from the spawning fish, for tests to certify that they are disease free. It usually takes three years to certify a reservoir, but Wilson said he thinks they may be able to get Strawberry certified in two years. By next summer he hopes to be taking eggs from spawning cutthroat at Strawberry to supply Utah's hatchery system. Eventually biologists hope to be able to take 6 million eggs from spawning fish at Strawberry.
Many biologists didn't think the cutthroats would spawn until they were five years old — and that would have been 1994. But Wilson said he was confident there would be some spawning activity this year, and that good numbers of the cutts would become effective spawners next year.
"Many trout species mature according to size, rather than age, and we thought they would really start coming on in 1993. We expected some females to come on this year, but we are seeing more activity than expected, and we are real encouraged by that," Wilson said.
Recent gill net studies show good survival of fish stocked last fall. "We were worried about them because they went in pretty small. But it looks like we got pretty good survival. Overall, we are getting good survival and an excellent growth rate. We've got fish pushing three pounds now. The rainbows are fat and the cutthroats are in good condition. We are doing great — everything is on the positive end this week."
"The goal is to produce 10 million cutthroat fry in the tributaries each year. It will take time to build to that level, but we are well on the way. At that time Strawberry will be self-sustaining — producing all the small fish it needs to maintain good fishing."
Most people fishing Strawberry on Memorial Day weekend cooperated with the voluntary catch-and-release standard for cutthroats. Wilson estimates 75% of the cutts caught were released. That's up from only 50% compliance last year.
"If we can hold that 75% compliance we will do very good," Wilson said.
The rainbows are pretty much holding in the shallow waters in the bays. Cutthroats tend to be out in the open water. Wilson advised people to get out in a boat and look for schools of fish in the bays. Then anchor and dunk some bait. Float worms, eggs, marshmallows or power bait just off the bottom and you will catch nice rainbows.
The cutthroats are being taken trolling. "If you want to concentrate on the rainbow, and not catch cutthroats, then you probably shouldn't troll," Wilson said.
Most cutthroats caught trolling can be easily released because the fish tend to be hooked in the corner of the mouth. If you happen to catch a cutthroat which is hooked deeply, Wilson advises you to just snip off your line. Don't even try to get the hook out. The hook will disappear within a couple weeks and the fish will probably be fine.
Copyright Dave Webb, 2005