All-American fun or the commercial rape of a lovely lake?
Whichever, it's the biggest fish story to surface since the state purposely poisoned Strawberry Reservoir in 1991 to rid it of substandard species and make way for elegant sport catches like trout and salmon.The impending event that's triggered the dispute is the "Strawberry 10,000," a fishing tournament sponsored by Allied, a Murray sporting-goods store, and radio station KLZX, better known as Z93.
The contest will award $10,000 on derby day Saturday, Oct. 1, to whoever catches the biggest rainbow trout out of the Strawberry, a popular aqua-blue gem in the Wasatch County high country east of Heber City.
Some outdoorsmen say the offer invites a chaotic fish grab in which cheaters, miscreants and assorted bad sports will descend on the reservoir and wreak havoc with the delicate ecological balance only recently restored to its waters.
"This will set back the recovering cutthroat fishery," said Allan Ryther, a member of the Stonefly Society, a local chapter of Trout Unlimited. "And it sets a precedent of future exploitation of Utah's coldwater fisheries."
Die-hard, river-runs-through-it types like Ryther worry that the horde of contestants descending on the lake will arrive in a killer frenzy, snagging anything by any means, injuring or killing the fish they throw back and polluting the water with minnows of unwanted and competitive breeds like suckers and chubs.
The contest is open to 3,500 fishermen, but some say it will draw more, many teaming up to fish off the same $10 entry fee.
Opponents argue it's too much to risk, citing the state's $4 million reseeding program that three years ago wiped out everything in the Strawberry and restocked it Genesis-style with three coveted species - kokanee salmon, rainbow trout and Bear Lake cutthroat trout. The reservoir since then has made a strong and steady recovery but remains vulnerable to misuse, which is just what the Strawberry 10,000 will be, according to its critics.
"It's legal, it's ethical and it's controlled," counters Steve Brown, an Allied spokesman who touts the derby as a family affair and thinks the vast majority of Utah's fishing community wants it. "You don't let 5 percent tell the other 95 percent what to do."
Brown points out that the contest will be preceded by catch-and-release seminars aimed at keeping unwanted-fish mortality to a minimum. He notes rules that limit contest entries to one catch and also mentions that the Division of Wildlife Resources is not opposed to the derby.
But DWR officials seem anything but firm in their support.
"We have a concern about the potential impact on the cutthroat population, but we have no data or prior experience that says that the impact would be sufficient to warrant asking for closure of the event," said DWR Director Bob Valen-tine.
That's why it should be stopped, responds David K. Hawkins, another outspoken fly fisherman who has been critical of the contest.
"Why use the jewel we've worked so hard to get for an experiment like this?" asked Hawkins, who along with the Stonefly Society wants DWR to hold public hearings on it immediately and come up with some environmental-impact assessments, a suggestion Valentine says isn't out of the question.
"I think it's a request that certainly has some merit," he said.
Valentine said such events easily could be stopped by legislative mandate.
Tom Pettengill, a state fisheries biologist who thinks the large number of fishermen the event will attract might in fact hurt the reservoir's fishery, said opponents might win the intervention they want.
But it may ultimately come from the heavens above, which dropped the season's first snowfall on the Strawberry this week.
"We could have some really lousy weather to help keep people away," said Pettengill.