In the beginning it was simple enough. A bubble and worm, possibly a small chunk of marshmallow, thrown from an anchored boat around islands or submerged ledges in colder waters, was enough for a limit of rainbow trout, possibly a brown now and then.
Enter largemouth bass, crappie and walleye, the elimination of trout, and a whole new style of casting . . . lures that look like rubber toys, bounced down rocks or around submerged trees and brush.Again things changed with the striped bass. Largemouth became harder to find, as did crappie and walleye, while the striper was being attracted by fishermen with anything that even resembled food - jigs, grubs, silver spoons, half an anchovy on a No. 10.
Exit the stripers, now. They overfed on their food source and millions starved. Two years ago, fishing at Powell hit rock bottom - no stripers, few largemouth, almost no crappie and only an occasional walleye.
That, in a few words, sums up the 18-year history of fishing at this southern Utah water. It has hit tremendous highs and unbelievable lows. As a trout fishery, there was none better in the country than Lake Powell. At another time, a good fisherman could hook a hundred largemouth a day and catch a garbage-can-full of crappie. And, at another time, it was considered bad fishing if it took more than a couple dozen casts to hook and land a limit (10) of five-plus-pound stripers.
The trout vanished, so did the largemouth and crappie, and now the stripers.
Oh, the fish are still there - the largemouth, crappie, walleye and striper, and even an occasional trout and catfish - but not in the numbers they once were, and they may never hit those highs again. Too many controlling factors now, like a full lake, limited food supply and no new habitat.
Take the threadfin shad, for example, once the main menu item of most every fish in the lake. They once swam the lake in the billions. Studies this year have shown no mid-lake production of the tinny fish at all. Netting operations around Hite, Bullfrog and Wahweap came up with two fish. There is some signs of shad along the shorelines, as far away from the stripers as they can get.
The results, says Jim Johnson, fisheries program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, "is we have millions of stripers in the 12- to 15-inch range (those that feed on plankton), but few larger ones. Only the small fish can survive in the warm water, up where the shad are. The larger fish sit out there waiting for the shad to do something. When they do the stripers get them. Unless something happens to the stripes, there's no chance of the shad ever to recover."
There is, too, little hope of introducing a second forage fish to the lake. It takes the consent of neighboring state and, to this point, there has been no hint of a breakdown in their opposition.
Enter the smallmouth, the bluegill and renewed life in the largemouth, and the possible return of the black bass fishery to its lofty position of a decade ago.
Smallmouth, cousin of the largemouth, slightly smaller but scale for scale a more aggressive fighter, were planted in Lake Powell for the first time in 1982. It was a small plant consisting of mostly of leftovers. The same was true in 1983. Since then about 250,000 fish have been planted in most of the major bays and arms.
It's to a point now, says Dick Gasaway, author of the book "Catching Lake Powell Fish" and one of the most successful fishermen on the lake, "where you can pickup smallmouth almost anywhere on the lake . . . fish with some good size to them."
There has also been a resurgence in the largemouth. Johnson attributes part of this to the stripers.
"Since the elimination of the shad the largemouth have done better and in proportion. The increase in largemouth is proportional to the decrease in shad. No doubt, the largemouth population has been enhanced by the striper," Johnson points out.
"Between the two (largemouth and smallmouth) we might start to rival bass fishing as we saw it back when it was at its best. One thing that has surprised us is the smallmouth is growing faster than the largemouth in virtually all areas of the lake. We have real hope for the smallmouth."
Another fish that is showing promise is the bluegill. It, too, has benefited from the drop in shad numbers. Johnson says that when shad were plentiful they consumed most of the zooplankton in the lake. Now their numbers are down the bluegill have a good food source. Already, fishermen are picking bluegill of fillet-able size in the backs of some of the canyons.
Fishing at the lake now is good and will continue to be good until early December. The secrets, offers Gasaway, are to fish structure, cast further and stay in the shadows.
Bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, live around structure, largemouth preferring trees and brush, but often having to settle for broke rock, while smallmouth prefer the broken rock.
Good lures would be worms, grubs, short worms and "Fat Gitzit," in brown or green, possibly with a little gold, tossed towards shore and then hopped down the bank to the boat.
At this time of the year the water is clearer and Gasaway suggests fishermen use a lighter line, fish a greater distance from shore and try to fish with the sun in the face and the shore in the shade, again hopping the the lure down the bank . . . lift up and reel, let it fall, lift up and reel, fall, lift and reel, fall . . . to a depth of about 20 feet.
"The secret is to be patient. Fish a likely looking spot, around structure, and move is nothing happens. The fish are usually deeper than you realize, especially if fishing with sun on the water . . . start shallow and work deeper. Once you establish a depth, then fish at that depth," he explains.
Stripers, he adds, can usually be found in the backs of open bays. Also, it's a good place to find a few walleye. Crappie are a little deeper and difficult to catch at this time of year.
He emphasized, again, the importance of working structure. Also, hitting a likely looking spot, working it, using an electric trolling motor or on a drift in a regular boat, and then moving. He also stressed letting the lure hit bottom, then working it out towards the boat.
Fishing is getting better, admits Gasaway. The secret is patience and knowing a little about where and how to fish. As the black bass fishery returns, fishermen will find it will pay.