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Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News
Nine-year-old Conner holds a striped bass weighing more than 9 pounds.

PAGE, ARIZ. — Three years of clear waters, expanding habitat, tasty meals, full bellies and plenty of room to swim about are showing.

Lake Powell may well be the No. 1 fishing spot in the country this summer ... The fishing is expected to be that good.

And, early indications are that the word is getting out: Lake Powell is, indeed, going to be a hot spot this year.

Reports are that fishing is good now and will only get better in the months ahead. Last week, after a bit of a cooldown, which typically lowers the catch rate, a party of four caught 15 striped bass, the smallest about 2 pounds and the largest around 9; a dozen smallmouth, one largemouth and a 3-pound walleye, all within a matter of four hours.

Reports of a dozen or more striped bass, all over 5 pounds, and a bunch of smallmouth, all caught in a morning or afternoon, are common.

Back in early February, a party of three left the lake with 100 striped bass after one day on the lake.

And, said Wayne Gustaveson, lake biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, "I'm hearing stories of high catch rates like that all the time."

The best part, at least in the minds of fishermen, is the fish are big, bigger than they've been in the past couple of decades. Most of the fish being caught are in the 4- to 5-pound range. Smaller fish, in the 1- to 2-pound class, are expected to be more plentiful as water temperatures warm.

"What you're seeing," explained Gustaveson, "are the results of three years of high threadfin shad production and rising lake levels. (Shad are the main forage fish for most of the fish in Lake Powell.)

"As the water went down, old sediment was exposed and when the water levels started to come up nutrients were released that have provided lots of food. Because of it, for the past three years now, we've had high numbers of striped bass and smallmouth, and we're starting to see largemouth and crappie coming back. Also, the walleye numbers have peaked because of the high forage. Not only are there large numbers of fish, but many of these fish are larger than we've seen in the past because of the abundance of food."

It is a situation anglers dream about, which is the likelihood of having too many fish.

"Which is why we're encouraging fishermen to keep all the striped bass and smallmouth they catch. This is an opportunity for fishermen to not only enjoy themselves but also be a service to the lake by helping to thin out the populations," said Gustaveson.

The pattern has shifted a little this year, however. There are not quite as many shad in the southern half of the lake, from Bullfrog and Halls Crossing south, as in the northern half.

Because of the split conditions, fishing techniques vary. In the northern region, a fast roll works well. In the southern areas, plastic is the secret — plastic grubs, tubes and senkos — on a jig head tossed in close to shore and then bounced along the rocks into deeper water. Suspended crankbaits are also working.

"It's like having two different ponds this year," explained Gustaveson of the split.

All of which, he added, should result in some of the best fishing being in the southern half.

"When you have as many fish in the lake as are there now, and they're a little hungry, the end result is great fishing," he said.

Currently, striped bass are located in two particular areas within the lake waters — in the main channel and in the warmer waters in the back of canyons.

In one particular cove late last month, filled with tumbleweeds and brush, calm waters erupted into what resembled a boiling pot of water when a large school of striped bass targeted a cray-fish colored grub on a quarter-ounce jig. Four fish were pulled from this point, the smallest weighing more than 5 pounds.

Those fish in the main channel are holding along canyon walls and are attracted there by the current. These fish can be caught on bait, mainly anchovies.

The second group of fish are prowling near pockets of brush in the backs of canyons. Brush pockets are protective areas for forage fish. Stripers typically hold in the deeper water, between 10 to 20 feet deep, then swim in and hunt for food.

The smallmouth and largemouth are currently in the spawn, which means they've moved into shallow waters to nest.

This is a popular time to fish since anglers are able to see the fish and watch as they aggressively go after lures. The spawn is expected to continue through the second week of May.

After the spawn, the fishing pattern will change, said Gustaveson, "from fishing in shallows where you can see the fish on nests, to fishing rocky structure where they'll be over the summer.

"As the lake comes up — and predictions are it will come up at least 30 feet — look at fishing islands and rocky points and not the shallow shorelines. Look for vertical structure that slopes down. That's where the fish will be holding."

Of all the fish in the lake, walleye are the most difficult to catch because they generally prefer holding in deeper water. In May, however, the fish come to the surface to spawn, which makes this is the most productive time to fish for walleye.

Gustaveson will be watching the lake's forage fish very closely this summer. As noted, the threadfin shad population, the main food source over the years, is down a little in the southern half of the lake. This drop in shad numbers could well be supplemented by a second forage fish — the gizzard shad — that was accidentally introduced into the lake several years back.

A federal hatchery in Texas mistakenly mixed the shad with game fish and released them into a lake in New Mexico. Those fish eventually made it into the San Juan River, which empties into Lake Powell.

The gizzard shad has now moved into the southern reaches of Lake Powell.

"This will be a good test year," explained Gustaveson. "The high numbers of striped bass has reduced the number of threadfin shad. Now the gizzard shad has a chance to shine. The gizzard shad are larger and therefore produce more eggs, so they could be a benefit."

If all goes as Gustaveson expects, Lake Powell will not be short of fish or fishermen to catch them this summer, which could well, as he predicted, make it the No. 1 hot spot in the country.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com