PELICAN LAKE — In the 1980s, the bluegill here were big, some of the largest in the country, and numerous. And there were as many largemouth bass, although somewhat smaller. Mysteriously, the populations of both fish crashed.
It was later discovered low water and freezing temperatures killed the fish.
The question then became: Would the lake ever regain its greatness? Now, on a good day, a well-schooled fisherman has caught upward of 200 fish — bluegill and bass. A lesser angler has caught upward of 100 fish, and a true novice has simply caught "lots of fish." Otherwise, fishing has been excellent.
A few of the bluegill caught have come close to the one-time giants of Pelican Lake, with some
reaching more than 2 pounds. Most of those caught now, however, are closer to the "average" size, which is around half a pound.
There are tradeoffs to this great fishing. Mosquitoes are a real nuisance at this time of year. Then there's something called "swimmer's itch." This is an infection caused by a "trematode parasite" that causes an annoying itch. Snails and vertebrates host the parasite, which shows up when water temperatures near 70, which is close to where they are now.
"So, don't swim and don't even wade into the water to retrieve a boat. And, put on lots of insect repellent," said Ed Johnson, fisheries biologist in the Northern Region for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
The story at Pelican Lake, however, is more about fishing.
In the beginning, Pelican was a secret little lake located in a remote area southeast of Vernal that no one knew about ... and the fish there grew fat and large.
Then, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, Pelican's bluegill received world attention and fishermen started showing up from all over to cast a line for the giants, and few of those who came ever went away disappointed.
"The lake got a lot of pressure, and people who fished were cropping off the top or keeping the big fish and returning the smaller ones," Johnson said.
While that reduced the number of giants, smaller fish filled in the catch rate.
At first it was felt that maybe pressure had something to do with the crash. Other guesses were fertilizers from nearby farmlands that may have gotten into the water, birds (pelicans) and a drought.
"After doing a lot of research, I found the lake crashed because of winter kill, a result of low water. I looked at the elevation and found we were off three-quarters of a foot below our (conservation) pool. In a lake this shallow that's a huge problem," Johnson said.
After the die-off, there were days when biologists conducting gill net surveys would find only two or three juvenile bass and no bluegill.
Once water level adjustments were made, the lake began to revive. It didn't take long to grow a population of bluegill and bass.
"This is a very productive reservoir. There are a lot of nutrients in the water. Now I'm seeing some big bluegill — 11/2- and 1-pound bluegill are not uncommon — but most fish average around one-half pound," Johnson said.
"We're taking creel surveys right now to try and figure out what's going on with fishermen. I get the feeling they are taking the larger fish, those fish 10 to 12 years old. You can't have that much pressure on fish 10 to 11 months of the year, especially with everyone cropping off the top. It's something we'll have to look at very closely. You can overharvest the top end of the bluegill population, but you won't wipe out the smaller fish. Not in this lake."
There have been days — winter and summer — when 200 to 300 fishermen have been on the lake catching fish. But because there is such a high reproductive rate for bluegill and bass, and an abundance of food allowing both to grow, fishing is expected to remain excellent as long as winter kill can be avoided.
The lake is also a perfect home for bass. Most of the bass are what they call "cookie-cutter fish," or smaller fish in the 1/2- to 1-pound range.
But there are some big bass in the lake.
"People think the big bass are gone, even those really good bass fishermen who come out here for a day and don't catch a lot of big fish," Johnson said. "But there are big bass. We had an 8-pound bass caught this year. I've found the best time to catch the bigger fish is early in the morning or half-hour before dark.
"You can fish during the day and catch 1-pound bass. It may frustrate some looking for larger bass, but most people would be happy catching those fish," he noted.
"This lake is like any other lake where the fish are out midlake during the day when it's hot and come in and cruise the shallows early and late."
What anglers are doing now is moving around until they find a hole or school of fish and then fishing it hard. Johnson said he's sat on spots where the fish were "and caught more than 200 fish."
Fly fishermen are using a range of patterns, from dry flies to nymphs to tinny jigs. Those using spinning gear at throwing a worm or 2-inch Christmas lights power grub on a No. 12 hook.
Early and late in the day Johnson recommended those after larger bass try throwing a weedless frog pattern in among the reeds. It was a frog pattern that attracted the 8-pound largemouth.
Johnson also noted that the problem with grubs showing up in fish is subsiding. A check a few weeks ago found only two grubs in 20 fish that were checked, "so it's not a concern at this point."
There are primitive camping opportunities around Pelican, with picnic tables and restrooms on the south side near the ramp. Popular fishing spots are along the northern and eastern shorelines.
There is also work going on to put in a fishing pier near the ramp area. When in place, it will be near deeper waters, which will make for better fishing opportunities for shore fisherman during hotter summer days.
As temperatures rise, the fish will move to deeper water, so use of boats, tube and pontoon boats will provide the best fishing.
To reach Pelican Lake, drive about eight miles past Roosevelt on U.S. 40, then turn south on state Road 88 for seven miles to the lake. State Road 88 is about 14 miles west of Vernal. The limit for bluegill and green sunfish is 20 in aggregate, and the limit on bass is six, but only one may be more than 15 inches.
Johnson said Steinaker Reservoir, six miles north of Vernal on U.S. 191, has been offering excellent fishing for bluegill as large as those at Pelican. The bluegill limit there is 50.
So, to the question: Would the lake ever regain its greatness? The answer is: Yes. The fish are there and they are growing. It may take a change in regulations and management plans, however, to bring back the giants.