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It was once considered one of the best fishing waters in the country. And it will be again.

Right now it's spotty, which simply means some people are catching fish routinely, some aren't.But Strawberry is not the fishing water it was; nor is it likely to hit that peak any time soon. There simply aren't enough fish right now.

In Strawberry are Bear Lake cutthroat, sterile rainbow and kokanee salmon. Biologists consider this a perfect blend for success.

Critics of plans to restore Strawberry suggest it would help to plant fertile rather than sterile rainbow.

Do that, say biologists, and in 10 years expect Strawberry to be what it was in the late 1980s - a breeding ground for the Utah chub. Rainbow can't control chubs, Bear Lake cutthroat can.

"It's frustrating, I know. It's very frustrating for us, but we either stay with our program, or we go back and eventually have a reservoir overrun by chubs," says Charlie Thompson, chief of fisheries for the Central Region of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Strawberry was treated for the first time in 1961 to remove all of the fish and start fresh. By the 1970s, the chubs had regained their grip on the reservoir. At one point prior to the second treatment in 1990, gillnet studies showed 98 out of 100 fish were chubs.

Since that time nearly five million fish - cutthroat, sterile rainbow and kokanee - have been planted in Strawberry. Biologist believe that the kokanee and cutthroat, both aggressive feeders, will control the chubs. Rainbow are there simply to be catchers and keepers.

So far, everything has gone as planned. Thompson said DWR biologists knew planters would grow fat and fast - and they have. A few weeks back a 7-pound rainbow was caught. Three years ago, this fish likely weighed less than a half pound.

And, he adds, "We go to other states and report on the growth of our kokanee and no one can believe it. In June of 1991 we planted three-inch kokanee. In September of 1992 some of these fish were up to 15 inches. The growth was so fast that we had some kokanee going up the rivers to spawn after one year when it should have taken four."

The only complaint has been in numbers, certainly not in size.

This, of course, is not to indicate that Strawberry is bad fishing. It's been good if you know and understand the lake.

"The one thing we're disappointed with is the survival of the rainbow. We thought the sterile rainbow would have a better survival rate than fertile ones. Now we're not sure. We are seeing some smaller fish caught so maybe we are getting better survival this year," Thompson reports.

Some believe the cutthroats, instead of feeding on the abundance of food in the water, are going after the small rainbow, and the solution is to plant larger fish to begin with.

The growth of the fish in Strawberry has not gone unnoticed. Fishing pressure has been high. The DWR was shooting for fishermen to spend about 1.2 million fishing hours when the reservoir was full and healthy. Last year, in a reservoir barely two years from treatment, 1.13 million hours were recorded. The return to Strawberry has been immediate and attractive to fishermen.

What fishermen are finding is that this new crop of fish isn't at all behaving like the old residents. The fish are in different places and biting different lures and baits.

Stan Kener, who grew up learning the ways of Strawberry, has found a new lake where the old one was.

"You fish it differently. You don't fish the same spots, and you don't use the same techniques. I've had to learn to fish this lake all over again," he says.

Kener is among those who have discovered Strawberry's new secrets. He's studied the lake and the fish and their habits. He watched other fishermen, especially the successful ones, and tried a wide range of lures and baits until he found the right ones.

And, he admits, he has yet to leave the lake this year without having had at least one good fight . . . "A lot of four- and five-pound rainbow and cutthroat, and a few good kokanee. They're all good fish - healthy and fat."

He fishes the shallows for rainbow, with worms or Power Bait, and trolls for cutthroat and kokanee with pop gear and a worm, triple teasers and flatfish. Before treatment he fished often with bubble and suspended the bait, but in the "new" lake, he has found it doesn't work. Now he uses a split shot and lets the bait rise, and it works.

Kokanee are deeper, around 30 to 40 feet currently. When they begin to spawn in the fall, they will become more likely to take a hook.

Right now, however, fishermen are impatient. Fish, although large and healthy, aren't showing up on hooks as often as fishermen would like.

"I know we're getting a lot of criticism right now because people aren't catching a lot of fish. I went back in the record, though, and found that the catch rate back when we treated the reservoir in 1961 was not one bit better than it is right now.

"You've got to remember Strawberry back then was about 2,200 surface acres, and today it's 330,000 surface acres. That's a tremendous difference," Thompson points out.

"We've simply got to stick with our plan. It may take more patience to get the numbers we want, but I think it will be worth it."