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Ray Grass: For a bevy of smallmouth bass, head for Lake Powell now

SHARE Ray Grass: For a bevy of smallmouth bass, head for Lake Powell now

BULLFROG, Kane County — The word was one boat of fishermen caught roughly 200 striped bass in a couple of hours fishing near the center of Warm Creek Bay at Lake Powell. And, had they not tired, it’s likely they could have doubled their catch.

Move forward seven days: On this day there were only a few stragglers, smaller fish, caught in the same area, trolling the same lures.

A cold front had moved through the area a day before the fishing trip last weekend. The theory, with no solid proof, is a drop in the barometric pressure, which causes additional pressure on the water’s surface, turns fish off their feeding schedule and causes them to move.

Pushed out to new areas, success required a laborious search with a fish finder, or luck, to find the schools of striped bass.

Which was pretty much the story over the entire lake. The only sure thing involved fishing shallower depths for smallmouth, largemouth bass and crappie.

But, because of the lower lake level, largemouth and crappie are scarce. So, the fish of choice was smallmouth, and fished right they were very catchable.

“It’s one of those things,’’ says Wayne Gustaveson, who has run the fishing program at Lake Powell for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for the past 38 years, “that always keeps you guessing. Where (the striped bass) went is a mystery and finding them becomes a real challenge.

“But, when you do find a school (of stripers) the fishing is nonstop. Because of lake conditions the stripers are in large schools … thousands of fish in a school. If you can find a school you can stay there and catch fish all day long.’’

And a week after the passing cold front, that was the case. Schools of stripers had moved back into their more predictable areas and fishing picked up.

Lake Powell has always been a challenge to fishermen.

First they fished for trout and largemouth bass when the lake began to fill starting in 1963-64. But the trout vanished and the largemouth thrived. Then crappie entered the picture and they thrived. Anglers were catching upwards of 100 largemouth a day and buckets of crappie.

Then the nature of the lake changed and striped bass were introduced in 1974 … and they thrived — at first. But then they began the seesaw pattern of good years and bad years based on food supply, so smallmouth were planted in 1982 and they are now the staple of Lake Powell.

As far as the future goes, Gustaveson says anglers can expect the populations of largemouth and crappie to be down because of the loss of habitat. Both like structure like brush and trees and because of the lower lake level — down about 110 feet — most of their structure is high and dry.

If the lake fails to rise significantly, then look for largemouth and crappie in “crazy’’ areas, like underneath bogs and in aquatic weeds.

“If the lake rises next spring and there is more structure for the largemouth and crappie, then expect numbers to increase. If it doesn’t rise, then expect more of the same,’’ he notes.

Smallmouth will continue to be the most catchable fish simply because their favorite habitat is broken rock and there are hundreds of miles of lakeshore with rocky structure.

A brown plastic grub fixed to a half-ounce jighead, tossed to the water’s edge over submerged rocks and then retrieved caught the attention of smallmouth.

Striped bass, the favorite catch of fishermen, are victims of the food supply, which in this case are the threadfin shad and gizzard shad. This past spring was a particularly bad year for both, so the stripers' food supply has been limited. Because of it, older fish are few and younger fish, one- and two-pound stripers, are plentiful.

Silver and blue Kastmasters trolled in open water work well for striped bass once located. Also, once a school is found, the same spoon can be jigged successfully.

“Because they reproduce in such large numbers there are always young fish, and if there are any shad out there this spring, the young will grow quickly. There will always be striped bass in this lake,’’ he explains.

Fishing for smallmouth will be good next spring in April and early May, then striped bass will become just as abundant or even more abundant to provide excellent fishing from May onward.

Other fish species are on the outer fringes of the angler’s catch list. This would be the walleye, catfish, blue gills, and even the carp and northern pike. A few are routinely caught, but not in the numbers of striped bass and smallmouth.

Fishing at Powell has gotten better in recent years in part because of the gizzard shad, says Gustaveson. For years he tried to get a second forage fish to augment the threadfin shad, but other states would have none of it.

Then a federal hatchery “accidentally’’ released gizzard shad into a tributary to Powell in 2000 and now, “They were lakewide by 2005.’’

One advantage to having the gizzard shad is their size. Adults, upwards of three and a half pounds, are too large for predator fish, therefore there are always fish to spawn.

Threadfin shad are much smaller and find it difficult to avoid predators, which accounts for the boom or bust years. Threadfin average about one inch in length.

One drawback is the gizzard shad is a surface fish, which keeps them away from the larger striped bass, which need the cooler, deeper water to survive.

And while there are some larger stripers — one caught a few weeks back weighed 32.5 pounds — there are very few and are spread lakewide.

“It takes 10 years for a striper to grow large,’’ Gustaveson explains. “When they get that large they feed on carp and catfish, so it doesn’t matter what cycle the shad are in. A one-pound carp or catfish will last a larger fish a week. Not many fish make it to that size.’’

So, the secret to fishing Lake Powell this fall is to go shallow for smallmouth and try to find the schools of striped bass and, if that happens, stay there and “catch fish all day long.’’