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About Utah: Strawberry Reservoir’s reputation is well-earned

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STRAWBERRY RESERVOIR — People have been catching fish here ever since anyone can remember.

For proof of that, check out the historic marker situated just beyond the Strawberry Bay turnoff at U.S. 40.

The sign pays tribute to the Dominguez-Escalante exploring party that in 1776 made its way through present-day Utah in search of a place to build a mission. En route the Spanish priests stopped in what they called "Valle de la Purisima" and recorded this in the expedition diary:

"We went down to a medium-sized river in which good trout breed in abundance, two of which Joaquin the Laguna killed with arrows and caught — and each one must have weighed more than two pounds."

Fish stories. They never die.

Especially here at Utah's favorite fishing hole.

Fish like this valley, and people who like fish like this valley.

That has created problems at times. The reservoir has had to be poisoned twice, once in 1961 and again in 1990, to get rid of all the trash fish, but at that it was because there were TOO MANY fish.

After each purge, Strawberry has regained its stature, its popularity, and reputation as the best place in Utah for serious trout fishing. According to published reports, the lake sustains some 1.5 million hours of fishing every year — as many hours as Lake Powell, which is 13 times bigger.

The lure? Besides all the fish — every year the state plants between a half-million and million rainbow trout, Bear Lake cutthroat trout and kokanee salmon — and the fact that the reservoir is no more than an hour's drive from the Wasatch Front, it's the atmosphere.

Strawberry has an unmistakable fish feel unmatched at other large reservoirs. It's a no-frills kind of place. The restaurant at the Strawberry Bay Marina & Lodge — the modern version of the old Phillips' Boat Camp — doesn't have anything in French on the menu but the fries. The house specialty is the half-pound fresh-patty hamburger. On the walls are elk and deer heads, plenty of photos of people, and one bear, catching fish, and a sign that says "Give a Man an Inch and He Thinks He's a Ruler."

On the lake there are almost no water skiers or wakeboarders. There are a few sailboats, but they've got fishing gear in them.

"There's a lot of people who won't fish anywhere else," says Reed Killpack, who works at the marina and lodge and lives year-round with his wife, Shari, in a trailer nearby. "I don't know if that qualifies them as fishing snobs, but they do love to come here."

Reed, 59, qualifies as a Strawberry historian. Not only has he been coming to the banks of the reservoir all his life, to fish and hunt as well as to work, but his first cognitive memory involves the lake.

He was 4 when his parents left their house in Provo in their 1953 DeSoto for a fishing trip to Strawberry, where the family had a cabin. They left the kids at home, declaring it a "grown-ups trip."

But Reed hurried out to the car, laid down on the floor in the backseat and covered himself with a blanket. The ruse worked, or so he thought, because his parents didn't pull that blanket off him until they'd driven through Provo Canyon and Daniels Canyon and arrived lakeside at their cabin.

"Years later they told me they knew I was back there," says Reed. "But that's how bad I wanted to go fishin'. It's my first real memory."

Those fishing cabins are gone now, drowned by the lake when it expanded, and Reed waxes nostalgic in remembering the '50s, "when the limit was 10 per person and it was nothin' to go out and catch fish."

Supply and demand has altered over the years. These days, the daily limit is four, with the additional requirement that all cutthroat between 15 and 22 inches be released.

But there are still plenty of fish, and this year, according to Reed, they haven't been playing hard to get. "The fishing has been really good," he says. "It almost feels like the old days."

A fishing contest has increased the traffic, he says. At the first of the year, 300 rainbow trout were tagged. Catch one of them and you're eligible for a drawing this October that will award a variety of prizes; and if you happen to catch a rainbow with a special yellow tag you'll instantly win a cash award ranging between $10,000 and $25,000.

So far, fewer than 100 of the tags have been reeled in. That leaves a couple of hundred still out there, including the ones for the cash.

Good an excuse as any, in case you needed one.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com