The fish Ed Johnson pulled from the gillnets in Red Fleet Reservoir two weeks ago were not what he expected or had hoped for. They were walleye 22 in all. Worse still, they were of different age classes, which indicated they were not a one-time find but that the walleye were established and breeding.
The prospects of that find are not good. Within a few years, what has been a popular and productive fishery could be destroyed. Walleye do not belong, nor can they coexist with the fish mainly trout, bluegill and bass already there.
The walleye in Red Fleet were put there illegally. That is, someone transported them to Red Fleet from another reservoir.
Worse still, walleye from Red Fleet could escape to other waters, such as nearby Steinaker, another popular family fishery.
"These are valuable waters to us," said Johnson, regional aquatics biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Recourses. "All (the walleye will do) is cause problems."
Six years ago, during gillnet operations, Johnson pulled two walleye from the nets. They were older fish and both were male. That same year a fisherman caught and turned in a walleye of the same senior age class, also a male.
"Then for years we didn't see anything. But, walleye do funny things. It's totally possible we simply didn't get any in our nets," he said.
"I suspect the fish we pulled out two weeks ago were from the original plant, but I can't be sure. Then again, it's possible they were put in last year or the year before and spawned."
Two of the latest finds were older fish, possibly four years old. The other 20 were young, around a quarter of a pound, possibly between 1-plus and 2 years old, "and the alarming thing is it's evident they've really taken off."
To try to minimize damage, the DWR has implemented emergency regulations that require all walleye, no matter the size, to be kept and killed. Also, there is no limit on the number of walleye that can be caught in Red Fleet.
The problem with walleye is that they are efficient predators that will eat any fish and lots of them.
And, said Johnson, there are plenty of fish in Red Fleet to eat.
"There is currently a large number of largemouth bass that have been around for a long time. We have a lot of years invested in these fish 8 or 9 years. We also have bluegill and a good rainbow fishery that is our bread and butter. To top it all off, we have some big brown (trout), up to 15 pounds," said Johnson.
"We have no way of replacing those mature bass or browns. Rainbows we can always put back in. And, because Red Fleet is not a particularly productive reservoir, it's likely these populations will crash."
What is likely to happen is a cycle will begin where the walleye will eat most of the fish in Red Fleet, get big and fat and then, when the food is gone, die. Biologists will then try to bring back the reservoir as a family fishery, but when numbers start to increase, any walleye that survived will begin the eating cycle again.
The same cycle occurred in Lake Powell with the striped bass. That is, when the shad numbers were high, the stripers ate their fill and got big and numerous. But when they depleted their food supply, the big fish died. When striper numbers were up, fishing was excellent. But in one year it could crash, the big fish would die, and fishing would be poor.
Regulations removing the limit on striped bass has moderated the cycle. Last year, for example, striped bass caught were around 7 pounds. This year they are typically around three pounds.
Walleye are different in that they are more difficult to catch; therefore limitless fishing may not help.
"And there are other concerns," said Johnson. "Red Fleet and Steinaker are connected by a pipeline, so there's a possibility of pushing the walleye into Steinaker. Also, it's a short run from Red Fleet down Brush Creek to the Green River and all the endangered fish that are in the river. And, just 30 minutes away is Flaming Gorge. If someone were to move walleye there it would be disastrous."
Flaming Gorge is, in fact, currently dealing with an illegally planted fish the burbot. It, too, is a voracious predator and has wildlife officials very concerned. The same emergency rules apply to the burbot all those caught must be killed, and there is no limit.
"We don't know how effective the regulations at Red Fleet will be, but hopefully they will discourage anyone from moving around fish," said Johnson.
In the long term, biologists will investigate the feasibility of chemically treating the reservoir to try and remove walleye.
"Treating a reservoir of this size is expensive and also is complicated by the fact that Red Fleet Reservoir provides culinary water to the Vernal area," said Roger Schneidervin, regional director. "On the other hand, we simply will not accept and manage a fish species that some irresponsible individual has illegally introduced.
"It's difficult to emphasize just how much damage an illegal introduction can cause to a fishery or an entire aquatic ecosystem, for that matter. The monetary cost and lost fishing opportunities are going to be felt by anglers and taxpayers alike."
This is not the only incidence in the area involving illegally planted fish. A few years ago biologists discovered someone had put perch in Starvation. Also, someone moved largemouth bass to waters where they should not be.
Also, the DWR had to treat Sandwash Reservoir after it was found both smallmouth and largemouth bass had been illegally planted, threatening what had been an excellent trout fishery. It has also found smallmouth bass in the Green River, which could seriously impacts native fish populations.
"Unfortunately, when this happens, no one wins. It's very costly in both money and man-hours to try and correct or at least contain the problem. Hardest hit are the anglers. This is money that could be used to improve fishing, not correct a problem," said Johnson.
And the worst part about it is there's no way of stopping these people from doing it again. It's almost impossible to catch someone attempting to illegally plant fish.
A reward is being posted for information and the arrest of the person responsible.
The Utah Bass Federation has donated $1,000, Rocky Mountain Anglers $500 and the DWR an additional $1,000.Anyone who has information about the illegal introduction of fish into Red Fleet Reservoir or any of Utah's fishing waters to call the Help Stop Poaching line at 1-800-662-3337.