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Starvation giving walleye the hook

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DUCHESNE — The situation is this: The bug-eyed, toothy walleye in Starvation Reservoir are starving.

They're small, they're thin and there are simply too many to share in the food supply.

Solutions were limited and expensive. At best, said Don Archer, special project coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, a conventional treatment would have cost $4 million.

State biologists, instead, have decided to experiment and try something that has never been done before. Over the next three weeks, they will take out what they put in.

Early Monday, a plan was set in motion that over the next three years will involve the capture and removal of small walleye from Starvation.

"To my knowledge, wildlife managers have never attempted this before, not in Utah or the Mountain West or anywhere else that I'm aware of," continued Archer.

A three-year study by Utah State University placed walleye numbers in Starvation at around 18,000. Archer said that with the current food base, "we're lucky if the reservoir can carry 3,000 or 4,000."

According to Ed Johnson, fisheries biologist for the Northeastern Region of the DWR, "Our net studies have shown poor annual growth rates for walleye. These fish are growing at half the expected growth rate. Also, only about

10 percent of their diet is fish compared to other reservoirs — like Yuba — where fish make up nearly 100 percent of the diet."

The problem with walleye in Starvation is similar to the one at Lake Powell with the striped bass. That is, the fish have eaten the cupboards bare, in this case the Utah chub, and are starving.

"The walleye are cropping the young chubs in the first month, after they hatch and before they can supply any real food value. What we're seeing in the nets are chubs that are 20-plus years old. All of the younger fish have been eaten at this point," he added.

"We figure we're getting about a half-ton of forage right now from the chubs. If we could only get 20 percent of the chubs to survive until mid-September, we figure we can increase the forage to 2 1/2 tons. That would be adequate to sustain the walleye population."

The plan is to try to remove 6,000 small walleye, 14 inches and smaller, each year "and see if this makes a difference."

The options were to treat the entire reservoir and kill all the fish, try for a second forage fish or raise and plant more chubs.

To treat the reservoir would have cost around $4 million, and the likelihood of the problem reoccurring would be high. To raise more chubs would cost slightly more than $4 million. And, after years of trying to get a new forage fish in Lake Powell have been unsuccessful, chances of it happening at Starvation were seen as slim.

"Removing the walleye is really the only thing that has any possibility of success aside from total treatment," continued Archer.

When Starvation was first filled back in the late 1960s, it was rated among the top rainbow trout fisheries in the state.

"Three years after we planted rainbow, the chubs moved in and pushed out the trout. It's amazing how quickly the chubs took over. We tried other fish, like lake trout, but nothing worked. So in the late 1970s we planted a couple of million walleye that came from eggs taken from fish in Utah Lake," he added.

"In hindsight, it was probably a mistake, but at the time it was the only thing we could do."

The walleye almost immediately began to take control of Starvation. For several years, when there were chubs to eat, the reservoir was known for its large walleye. At one point the state record, a fish that weighed nearly 15 pounds, came from Starvation.

As the food supply shrunk, however, so did the size of the walleye. Biologists now say that 95 percent of the walleye in Starvation are less than 14 inches.

To add to the problem, Utah fishermen have never bonded with walleye fishing. In Eastern states, because of its palatable qualities, the walleye is the fish of choice.

Utah fishermen see the fish differently. Despite its tasty appeal, walleye require new and different fishing techniques and during most times of the year are difficult to catch. They also put up very little fight when hooked.

Over a three-week period, crews will set 20 nets overnight, then return at daylight and remove the fish. Chubs, smallmouth bass and the larger walleye will be returned to the reservoir, the smaller walleye will be kept, filleted and given to volunteers and charities.

Netting and removing striped bass from Lake Powell would never be possible because of the lake's size. This program could be used at Yuba Reservoir, which is currently on the same crash course as Starvation.

"We'll try it here, and if it doesn't work we'll revert back to conventional methods. If it does, then we've solved the problem and saved a lot of money," he concluded.

E-MAIL: grass@desnews.com