Putting on the pounds: Larger fish making a comeback at Lake Powell

Published: Thursday, May 19 2005 12:04 a.m. MDT

Anglers fish from a boat at Lake Powell, where conditions have made it possible for striped bass to grow large in both size and numbers. The lake is seeing some of its best fishing conditions in decades.

Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News

LAKE POWELL — The evidence is undeniable. First one, then a second and a third striped bass took the trailing lure — and not one of the fish weighed less than five pounds. The largest was around 7 1/2 pounds.

The fourth fish was a bit smaller, but still it was more than the five-pound mark. The fifth fish, which came in after a few rounds of tossing tube jigs into the shallow rock beds after smallmouth bass, was what most fishermen have been used to catching — a juvenile, maybe 20 inches long and in the area of three pounds. It was a good catch but was dwarfed when mixed in among its larger cousins.

It has been more than two decades since striped bass in the seven- to eight-pound class have been caught with such regularity at Lake Powell.

It has been that long, said Wayne Gustaveson, project leader at Lake Powell for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, since conditions have made it possible for stripers to grow so large and in such numbers.

"You can look at the drought as having a silver lining," he said as he looked over the jagged shoreline in Warm Springs Bay.

"With the lake this low it has exposed sediment that has been covered for 25 years. This sediment is being redistributed and is releasing nutrients back into the water. This has resulted in three good years of (threadfin) shad production. We haven't had three consecutive years of production like this since the 1970s. We only had two good years of shad production the entire decade of the 1990s."

Three years of an abundant food supply has resulted in large schools of very large fish prowling the lake.

"And, if we have another good year, you can expect to see stripers in the eight- to 10-pound range by next spring," he added.

The typical pattern for striped bass is more like a teeter-totter. That is, bass numbers rise until there are too many for the available food, and then numbers plummet. With less feeding pressure, the shad rebound. Then, with more food, the stripers follow until their numbers get so high again they wipe out their food base and then the cycle begins again.

When in this cycle, even during the best years, the striped bass typically fall within the three-pound class — at best.

"This is unusual, but it's exciting to see," said Gustaveson. "Right now it's all based around the shad. The lake is just so productive right now, and because it's so productive the fish are just so big and so healthy."

The current lake conditions are also benefiting the largemouth bass and crappie. The lake is currently rising. Predictions are it will come up close to 50 feet. The rising water (it's risen nearly 15 feet since mid-April) is covering vegetation that has been growing along the shorelines. Both largemouth bass and crappie need this new-growth vegetation to survive.

Smallmouth bass prefer a habitat of broken rock.

"The smallmouth will continue to do OK, because the broken rock is not going to go away anytime soon," he said. "Vegetation will. But, as the level keeps coming up, we can expect the largemouth and crappie to continue to thrive."

Some of the smallmouth being caught last week were in the two- to three-pound class. Gustaveson said that with another good shad year, "we could see smallmouth in the three- to five-pound class by next year."

For years now, Gustaveson has been fighting to bring in another forage fish for the underwater residents of the lake but has been unsuccessful. A few years ago, the federal government accidentally released gizzard shad in the San Juan River, which flows into Lake Powell.

Gustaveson said the accidental introduction of the gizzard shad has been overshadowed by the success of the threadfin shad.

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