ROCKPORT RESERVOIR — Out on the ice, a hit comes as little more than a shiver at the tip of the fishing rod — along the lines of a stiff breeze. But it could mean the bait, in this case a wax worm, has enticed a fish. That's when knowing when to set a hook comes into play.
Streams and rivers are different in the winter. There's more action needed by fishermen than from fish. Because it's cold and fish are less active, hints that fish may be near or indications of anything out of the ordinary warrant an angler's response. If it's a false alarm, a quick cast upstream begins a new cycle.
In some respects winter fishing is easier. But in some ways it's more challenging. That could be it is suggested that fishing in winter is becoming more popular than summer fishing.
Pass by Utah's mid- to higher-elevation lakes or reservoirs in the winter and you will see fishermen on the ice. The same is true of Utah's more popular streams and rivers: There are fishermen in warm boots, coats, pants and hats — with fishing gear. And their equipment could be simply a rod and reel or a more elaborate camp with shelter, power auger, fish finder and portable TV.
March is popular with Utah fishermen. Weather is warmer and the days are longer. It's also a time when more hatches take place so there's more surface action on moving waters.
Winter is also when fishing opportunities broaden. The lower-elevation waters are ice-free and open to more traditional fishing methods, such as fishing from boats and casting from shore.
Among the ice-free waters are Otter Creek, Piute, Minersville and Grantsville. Those with solid ice include such popular spots as Panguitch, Starvation, Pineview, Rockport, Scofield, East Canyon, Fish Lake and Strawberry.
Byron Gunderson, owner of Fish Tech Outfitters, said reports from shopping anglers indicate that one of the currently underused fishing spots is Flaming Gorge.
"The gorge is loaded with rainbow and smaller lake trouts. The reports we're getting show the reservoir from Buckboard south is ice-free. For those who want an option, they can fish on the ice on the northern end for burbot," he noted.
But overall, conditions are good. There's plenty of water in reservoirs and rivers, and good ice conditions on most of the popular fishing waters. And Roger Wilson, coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' fisheries program, said, "We've planted a lot of fish. We've ramped up production with the rebuilding and modernization of our fish hatcheries."
Jim Karpowitz, director of the DWR, explained that last year the agency produced and planted 800,000 pounds of fish and "this year the division will produce and plant 1.34 million pounds of fish."
Utah hatcheries produce a wide range of fish, including several strains of rainbows and cutthroats, browns and brooks, as well as hybrids such as the popular tiger trouts, splakes and wipers.
There are now 13 state-run hatcheries in Utah. Karpowitz noted that when the Kamas hatchery resumes production, planned for late summer, "it will be the first time in 15 to 20 years we've had all our hatcheries up and operating."
Also, after the DWR lost its connection for tiger muskies, the agency has been working to establish an instate program that will produce more fish at lower cost.
Looking at some of Utah's more popular waters, Wilson called Rockport Reservoir "a little bit of a sleeper."
"It's not on a level with places like Strawberry, Scofield and Lake Powell, but it's one of the more important waters. The last survey we did, Rockport was, for the first time, among the top 10."
Last week, Cal Kener, Mike Kevitch, Dave Crandall and Dan Smith fished at Rockport. Within a hour of drilling the first ice hole, Kener had three large rainbows. Smith had one fish, which he released, and a solid strike.
Kener said the foursome has fished Rockport several times this winter, "and done quite well." Their bait was wax worms but PowerBait is also working well, he reported.
A few perches have been showing up at Rockport, but far fewer than the 2005 record rate.
Strawberry and Lake Powell are Utah's most heavily fished waters. During peak years, more than 2 million angler hours will be recorded at Lake Powell and 1.5 million at Strawberry.
Among cold water fisheries, Strawberry gets more pressure than the next four most-popular waters combined.
In the last year Strawberry has also been offering up more fish anglers can keep. The limit is four trouts and/or kokanee salmons. But under special regulations, anglers can keep sterile rainbows but only two Bear Lake cutthroats under 15 inches and only one over 22 inches.
For years rainbow trout survival has been an issue. Millions of rainbows were planted but few showed up in creel surveys. Several years ago the DWR found that the smaller 6-inch rainbows planted were being eaten by predators and the planting of larger, eight-inch fish began in order to improve survival.
"It's far more expensive to plant the larger fish," Wilson said, "but we're seeing results. We've had people complain to us that they can't get lures and baits past the smaller rainbow in order to get down deeper to the larger cutthroat. For us, that's a nice problem to have."
Creel studies this year showed a substantial increase in the number of rainbows being caught. Gillnet surveys last spring also showed an increase in the number of larger, five-pound-range rainbows in the reservoir.
Reports on Strawberry are mixed lately. One of the biggest problems facing fishermen is finding parking places. Snowplows clear highways but not side roads and parking areas near access points. ATV and snowmobile drivers also have been experiencing difficulty traveling on ice with snow and slush on the surface.
Among those fishing waters in the top-10 most-popular spots, along with Strawberry and Powell, are Flaming Gorge, Scofield, Jordanelle, Deer Creek, Pineview and the High Uintas, and the Provo and Weber rivers.
Since being treated several years ago, Panguitch has ample fish and Wilson explained there have been no reports of chubs being caught.
That is not the case with Scofield. He noted that chubs are starting to show up and that more attention is being paid to biological control, which would follow methods used in Strawberry. Predator fish, such as Bear Lake cutthroats and tiger trouts, will be introduced in an attempt to control the nuisance fish.
Rivers have also offered good fishing. Again, because of the prospects of a good water year, flows from dams have been steady.
Last week, Dave Tall and Ron Moore spent a morning fishing the middle Provo. Among the flies used were San Juan worms, Griffith's gnats and scuds.
Gunderson also noted that fly fishermen have complained that there are too many small brown trouts in the middle section of the Provo, "because fishermen are simply not keeping some of the fish they catch." With the competition for food, fish remain small.
Nymph fishing has been good on rivers. Some fly fishermen are trying tiny dry flies, size No. 20 and smaller, and doing well. Some are already using stoneflies and catching fish. The larger fish are taking nymphs, while the smaller fish are now taking dry flies.
Rainbows are being caught at Deer Creek where the Provo flows in, but few perches are showing up. Larger perches are coming out of Starvation.
Those looking for a water to keep young anglers interested should consider Pineview. Almost anywhere on the reservoir many small perches are being caught.
It's not sure how long anglers will be able to walk on ice this year. Reports at most of the popular waters are that the ice is more than a foot thick, which means it will take several weeks of warm temperatures to melt. Meanwhile, streams and rivers will continue to flow at relatively high levels and offer good fishing.
Which simply means winter fishing will be around for a while.