Willard Bay – Useful Angles on Utah's
Gizzard Shad Experiment

By Ray Schelble

Willard Bay is back, but it looks like anglers may not realize it for a while. Kent Sorenson, regional fisheries biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Northern Regional Office reports the fish are in prime condition. An electrofishing sample in March found enough gizzard shad to maintain the forage population in the reservoir for another year.

Although gizzard shad can have problems making it through the winter some years, it doesn't take many survivors to rebuild the forage base. "1,800 (gizzard shad) turn into 10 million in a month," he said. As an added benefit, other forage species in the reservoir seem to be growing in numbers as the shad help feed the predators (walleyes and catfish). "We found sand shiners, young of year perch and small crappie," Sorenson said. He has hopes that spottail shiners planted in the early 1980's will show up in later surveys.

As a bonus, a few plump male walleyes and catfish also showed up in the March sampling. "Female walleyes are hard to find in a sampling at this time of year because they swim in, spawn and leave without spending much time in the shallows," he commented. He added that some nice crappie also showed up in recent surveys, although he expects lack of suitable cover will limit the species in the future.

According to Sorenson, the DWR knows the Willard Bay walleyes are healthy but lacks a conclusive way to count how many are in the reservoir right now. Present survey methods for walleye work well for other waters in the country but do not adapt well to Utah waters such as Willard Bay. The DWR hopes to develop a procedure this summer to remedy this.

Willard Bay water levels should not present a major problem for anglers this summer. While upstream reservoirs could reach extremely low levels, Willard should come through in decent shape, according to Grant Salter of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. Even if the current drought continues, low water levels may not adversely affect the shad population, at least during the summer. Since Willard Bay lies at the northern limit of the shad's range, they should adapt well to higher water temperatures resulting from lower lake levels.

Yet, while the DWR gives optimistic reports of Willard Bay's health, the fishing report still reads "slow". Sorenson reported that anglers are having some success using shad imitating lures and small jigs, old standbys for the reservoir. "Just throwing any old lure won't work," Sorenson cautioned. Interestingly, he reported that, "most (catfish) are being hooked but not caught. They pull the fisherman around for awhile and then break the line." In a survey last fall, 15 of 79 total catfish weighed in the five to seven pound category.

Sorenson predicts the fishing will remain slow until the walleye and catfish increase in numbers and strike a better balance with the shad. Rocky Mountain Anglers walleye club members Bob Davis and Lee Potter share this opinion. Both are long-time Willard Bay anglers. "I think Willard's got at least another year (until the fishing improves)," Davis estimated.

The anglers agree that walleye catching techniques on the reservoir are tough to forecast as nothing has worked very well since the shad were planted. "It's really hard to tell at this time," Potter commented when asked about what approaches will work this summer. For anglers who want to try for the hefty walleyes in the late spring and early summer, Davis suggested, " Troll fish at night; fish when it's windy." He added, " Willard Bay has always been a better lake to troll."

Wind has long been considered an ally by serious walleye anglers. At Willard, Davis recommends looking for walleyes on the downwind shore during consistent winds. Winds concentrate plankton against the shoreline. This brings shad in search of food which in turn brings hungry walleyes to feed on the shad.

Potter leans toward open water approaches as the key to success. "Those shad are all over," he explained. "I haven't had much luck along the dikes like before (the gizzard shad were planted)." Potter continued, "One thing I've wanted to use is side planters." He feels that moving his offering away from the boat could reduce the "spook factor" on skittish walleyes in the shallow lake. Davis and Potter believe that the key to catching Willard walleyes will be to cover as much water as possible and look for walleyes near schools of shad.

Catfish can become an added bonus for Willard Bay trollers. "They hit really hard," according to Potter. Both think that catfish probably will be a better bet than walleye this summer.

For those wanting to try for the walleyes and catfish, Davis and Potter suggest minnow-imitating lures like Rapalas and #5 or #7 Shadraps for trolling. Davis pointed out that jigs fished along the dikes should bring some success early and late in the day. Lures kept within a foot or two of bottom have worked best in the past, but the shad may entice walleyes to suspend above bottom in open water. Time will tell. Night crawlers or dead minnows drifted or fished on the bottom should produce enough larger catfish to keep things interesting.

While anglers explore techniques to consistently put Willard Bay predators in the boat, biologist Sorenson states emphatically, "Don't let anyone move the shad." If they show up in any other waters, they may be removed from Willard Bay also, and Utah's experiment will be ended.

For now, it seems, Willard Bay anglers need to be patient and inventive. The gizzard shad should take care of the rest.