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A fishing legend in his own lake

After 45 1⁄2 years as the preeminent fisheries biologist at Lake Powell, Wayne Gustaveson leaves a reservoir brimming with millions of fish and thousands of happy fishermen.

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Longtime Lake Powell fisheries biologist Wayne Gustaveson with two of the 45,000 stripers he’s caught over the past 45 years.

Longtime Lake Powell fisheries biologist Wayne Gustaveson with two of the 45,000 stripers he’s caught over the past 45 years.

Wayne Gustaveson

By his own count, Wayne Gustaveson has caught 45,000 stripers at Lake Powell.

And if you think that’s a whale of a fish story, he’s just warming up.

For the past 45 ½ years, ever since he first set foot on Wahweap Marina in December 1975, Gustaveson has been posted at Lake Powell as a fisheries biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

His assignment, in layman’s terms: Make sure the fish are happy and so are the fishermen.

It would be hard to conceive of anyone pulling off that seemingly incompatible double any better.

The beginning

The lake was in decent shape, fish-wise, when Wayne arrived as a 28-year-old rookie fresh out of college. Largemouth bass and crappie could be found in abundance. But the man-made reservoir, created in 1963 with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam, was still backing up and filling in, taking with it the brush habitat largemouth and crappie prefer.

Observing this, Wayne made two recommendations to his bosses at the DWR that would turn Lake Powell into a fishery of world renown.

The first was a proposal to increase the limit on striped (striper) bass.

Of course, this met with resistance. Increasing the number of fish a fisherman (or fisherwoman) could keep was completely counterintuitive to the catch-and-release approach to increasing fish populations.

But Wayne noted in his tests and studies that striped bass, which it was believed would only spawn in the river entering the reservoir, were reproducing in the lake in numbers as prodigious as they were unexpected. He could see that the existing legal limit of just two stripers a day would soon result in a serious overpopulation of the lake, threatening not only the health of the stripers but all the other fish.

The best way to manage the fishery was by fishing.

It took time, but his lobbying eventually got the limit raised to four, then 10, and finally an outright removal. Whatever stripers you caught, you could keep.

As for smallmouth bass, by the early 1980s Wayne speculated that this would be the right species to replace the dwindling numbers of largemouth and crappie.

Again, he met with resistance. Again, he persisted, deciding this time to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

On his own, at the end of the 1982 season he introduced about 800 smallmouth bass into the waters of Lake Powell.

How right was he?

Today, the estimated smallmouth population is 10 million.

That’s alongside the 15 million to 20 million stripers that call the lake home — and a still representative population of largemouth, crappie and walleye.

Wayne’s words

All these fish naturally attracted fishermen, lots of them, from all the Western states and beyond.

That led to another Wayne brainstorm. He started a website, Wayne’s Words, to let anglers know where the fish are biting and how to catch them.

This, too, was counterintuitive to the fishing mindset. Normally, getting a fisherman to tell you his favorite spot is akin to getting Coca-Cola to reveal its recipe.

But Lake Powell was a different kind of fishery and Wayne knew it. Other than himself and a few others who live in the small nearby town of Page, there are essentially no locals. A typical Lake Powell fisherman drives hundreds of miles to get there, fishes for a few days, then leaves.

Posting your successes online gives those coming after you a head start, just as those coming before you can give you a head start.

“It took awhile,” says Wayne, “but we finally convinced enough people that it really took off.”

Today, Wayneswords.net has more than 5,000 subscribers and three times that many who aren’t subscribers.

On account of all of the above and more, Wayne has become a legend in his own lake. Ray Grass, the longtime outdoors editor for the Deseret News, has spent his fair share of time over the years riding around Powell with Wayne. It’s like going through downtown Chicago with Michael Jordan.

“Everyone knows Wayne, or knows of him,” says Ray. “‘The joke at Powell is, he knows every fish by name.”

And while that may be technically impossible, Wayne does admit, “I kinda feel like their father. All these years I’ve kept track of my little kids, made sure they were doing fine, and it was awesome.”

He phrases that in the past tense because June 30 was his last day in the employ of the DWR. At 74, he’s retiring from “the best job in the world.”

The passion’s still there, says Wayne, but the energy and mobility isn’t what it used to be.

As it is, he already has enough fish stories to last several lifetimes. Like when he and a friend caught 92 stripers in two hours. Or the year he decided to count the stripers that landed in his boat from early spring to the end of December and came up with 997.

“That seemed about average,” he says, “so I feel safe in saying I’ve caught 45,000 stripers in 45 years.”

His favorite story is the time he was fishing near the shore one evening when he felt a heavy strike on his line. He started to reel in, when all of a sudden the fish started swimming in two directions.

He continued to reel in until he’d landed a three-pound largemouth and a two and a half-pound smallmouth, both fish caught on the same lure.

He’s got a picture of that for disbelievers, “And my wife was there,” he adds, “She’d probably tell the same story.”

In retirement, he still plans to keep Wayne’s Words going, and still plans to get out fishing whenever possible.

“I feel like I’m a kid every time I see a striper boil,” he says. “That hasn’t diminished at all.” Nor has this: “I still can’t believe I got paid to do what I’d pay to do.”