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No returns, please, on Lake Powell stripers

It goes against all logic. Where, in any book about fishing or on the wall of any tackle shop, is it written that the future of good fishing depends on catching and keeping as many fish as possible?

Only at Lake Powell. Only in the pleading - no, begging - words of Wayne Gustaveson. But it's difficult and sometimes impossible to get fishermen to rethink the benefits of catch and release. To convince them that it's OK to put back only the hook and the dead anchovy on it.It is the striped bass targeted by Gustaveson, fisheries biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Keeping the striped bass, he said, the only way of controlling an out-of-control fish.

Right now, Lake Powell is overpopulated with striped bass. Nature's way of control will be to starve them to death. And without a notable reduction in numbers, millions of fish will die this winter.

"There's simply not enough food for all the stripers. You can see it now. Fish that were five and six pounds a few months ago are now three and four pounds. The fish we lose will be the larger fish. What we'll end up with next year is a lot of little fish. And after that, fewer and fewer little fish," Gustaveson said with a noticeable tone of urgency to his voice.

This is ultimately a sad ending to what has been one of the best summers of fishing in more than a decade.

"Fishing has been excellent, and it will remain good for a while. But, we're seeing the start of a downturn. There's not enough food to go around."

Expecting the inevitable, Gustaveson pushed for and got the limit on striped bass lifted. He also pushed for and got chumming legalized lakewide. Striped bass are a gregarious group. If one starts to feed, they all will.

The problem is that the striped bass was taken from the ocean and converted to fresh water. Because of the harsh breeding conditions in the ocean, stripers turned into a virtual egg-producing machine. A 5-pound mature female can produce 1 million eggs in a single spawn and an 8-pound mature female can produce up to 2 million eggs. Survival in ocean tributaries is only about 5 percent, said Gustaveson, "but here in Lake Powell survival is about 80 percent." So, instead of 50,000 small fry, a Lake-Powell striper will produce 800,000.

The incredibly high survival rate can mean an incredibly high catch rate for fishermen. But it also means an incredibly high grocery bill.

Gustaveson said the fishery is on a 15-year cycle.

"I've been lucky," he added. "I've been here long enough (22 years) to see it go from very good, to very bad, to very good again. Now I'm watching it go down. The only way to slow it down is to harvest as many fish as possible. It's the only management tool we have available to us."

At this time of year, in their efforts to get away from being eaten, the threadfin shad move to shallower, warmer waters in the backs of canyons. Smaller stripers, able to withstand the warmer water, follow. Larger fish, more high strung and less tolerant of warmer water, can't . . . and they eventually starve.

Knowing this, fishermen are following the fish. Most of the catches are stripers in the one- to six-pound range. Occasionally, a smallmouth or largemouth bass is being caught in the same areas.

What is most astounding is the number of fish caught. It is not uncommon for a fishermen with the right equipment to boat more than 100 fish in a day. Four fishermen recently wrote to Gustaveson and reported catching 529 fish between them in a day.

"The fish we need to get out of the lake are this year's hatch, the fish that are around a pound. It's funny, but they're the size of a nice trout, but fishermen don't see it that way. They catch the larger fish and throw the smaller fish back, which is the wrong thing to do," he said.

What helped spur this latest rise in fish was the drought back in the 1980s. The lower water level uncovered vital shoreline. Vegetation grew and as the water level rose, this provided protection and habitat for fish. This was coupled with two good production years for shad - 1995 and 1996.

Stripers will move to the opposite ends of the lake to spawn in early spring. Unlike some fish, stripers will eat during the spawn, so early spring is an excellent time to locate and catch stripers. In the summer, as water temperatures rise, stripers move to deeper water. In the fall they wait by the steep canyon walls for shad as they move to the canyons. And right now, stripers are in the canyons along with the shad.

Good fishing is tied to locating the fish. Electronic fish-finding equipment eliminates the guesswork. An anchovy on a larger No. 8 hook, dropped to the bottom, which at this time of the year should be in areas where the water depth is between 40 and 60 feet, is one of the best fishing methods. A silver spoon jigged off the bottom also works well. Sometimes the fish are suspended, so Gustaveson recommends jigging at different depths if there is no action.

Typically, when the fish have been found and are feeding, everyone is catching fish. Stripers are nomadic, however, so it's a good idea to try several areas, but always looking for similar conditions. At this time of the year, it is at the backs or near the back of the shallower bays.

"People always talk about the good old days. Well, these are the good old days. This is the year everyone will look back on and remember for the good fishing. And if the cycle holds true, fishing this good won't come around for another 15 years," concluded Gustaveson as the looked over the fleet of boats near the back of Warm Springs Bay, then added, "Good, they're catching fish. Now if they'll just keep 'em."