Utah Lake Fishing
Poor old Utah Lake is like the late great Rodney Dangerfield…it gets no respect. Because of the poor treatment it has received since the coming of the settlers in the 1800s it has suffered a lot from pollution and from an overabundance of carp. These and other elements have contributed to the lake’s reputation as an environmental disaster. A common misconception is that the Utah Lake found by the Mormon pioneers was a
beautiful alpine lake…deep, clean and ringed with tall pine trees. Hogwash. It was always a shallow desert lake surrounded by sagebrush. Not much of the original character remains along the eastern lakefront but some areas of the west and south sides of the lake still look pretty much the same as they did in the olden days…except for more farms and roads. Oh yeah, and some yuppieville developments like Saratoga Springs. The first settlers DID find a clearer and cleaner lake that had abundant aquatic growth in both the lake and around the shoreline. And there were several native species of fish upon which pioneers were able to subsist through the tough early years in Utah. One of those species was the native Bonneville cutthroat trout…a remnant of the former great Lake Bonneville.
One of the other indigenous species in Utah Lake was the June sucker. They grew to be several pounds and were so abundant they choked the Provo River each year on annual spawning runs. Like the cutthroat, Junies were heavily harvested for food. Also like the cutthroat, the June sucker was severely impacted by the introduction of carp. Carp are prone to eating and rooting up aquatic vegetation needed by June suckers as nurseries for their vulnerable fry. Without protection, the hatchlings were easy meals for the introduced predator species. June suckers almost became extinct. By the mid 80’s only a few hundred mature adults could be found. They have been accorded protected status under the federal endangered species list since 1986. There is an ongoing program to eradicate large numbers of carp from Utah Lake as well as other measures to restore suitable habitat for the Junies and to improve the lake overall.
To most anglers, catfish and ice fishing are terms that do not go together in the same conversation. Everybody knows that catfish only bite during the warm summertime. Right? Wrong. Channel cats stay active and feed all year…even under the ice. They don’t move around as much, eat as much or fight as hard when hooked in cold water. But, they will take jigs and bait when it is dropped down to them through a round hole in the frozen water above. As a general rule you will catch more winter cats from deeper water. Even better if you can find a ”temperate” zone where underwater springs bring in water that is warmer than the ambient lake temperature. Areas around Lincoln Beach and Saratoga Springs are your best bets for finding warm spots. But, catfish can be full of surprises. They sometimes swim into fairly shallow water under the ice, looking for any kind of meal they can find…live or dead. Anglers fishing dinky jigs on light tackle for bluegills or crappies sometimes find themselves pulling on something that is much bigger and heavier…a curious kitty. And a few ice anglers have had a bad scare when they look down into a hole and see a monster cat staring back at them.
A few anglers deliberately target catfish through the ice. They usually fish with chunks of minnows or fish meat…either on a jig hook or simply allowed to flutter to the bottom on a hook…with or without additional weight. But chilly cats also like small jigs with a bit of worm. One tactic used by sneaky winter cat chasers is to set up a bait rig with an open bail and then move a ways away from the hole to avoid making any noise that could spook a catfish in shallower water. Some wrap a loop of the line around an empty drink can so that when a fish picks up the bait and moves off it tips over the can with an audible notification.
Utah Lake is a big lake. But there are a limited number of spots with public access where you can fish from shore with realistic expectations of catching a lot of catfish. Some of the most popular are Lincoln Beach, Provo Airport Dike Road, Provo Boat Harbor, Lindon Harbor, American Fork Boat Harbor, The Jordan River Outlet and Pumphouse, Pelican Bay Marina and on the west side at both the Knolls and across the lake along Goshen Bay.
Many of the best shore fishing spots are from the dikes around harbors. Others are from natural rocky areas with deeper water close to shore. The productivity of any shore fishing spot is usually dependent upon water conditions…depth, clarity, temperature, etc. When conditions are right you can catch a grundle of cats. When things ain’t right the cats will be somewhere else and all you will get is casting practice…and maybe some skeeter bites. When fishing from shore you can use almost any of the tackle and techniques discussed previously. When fish are cruising and feeding close to shore you can make short casts with no weight. Or you can toss out a bobber rig and let the breezes move your offering around a bit. But, you need to be prepared to change location, bait or tactics if you are not getting action. You can’t catch them where they ain’t and it is better to move than to wait for fish that never come.
Utah Lake contains two types of suckers…both native species. The Utah Sucker is found naturally in many Utah waters…and across state lines into Idaho and Wyoming. The June sucker is indigenous only to Utah Lake but has since been introduced into a couple of other Utah waters as part of the June Sucker Recovery Program which was started in 2002. Visit the website at http://www.junesuckerrecovery.org/ .
Both species were abundant in Utah Lake and the main tributaries when the pioneers first arrived in Utah. And both were heavily harvested for food during the first lean years when the fish from Utah Lake were about all that prevented many pioneers from perishing. That harvest became so heavy that ultimately all native species in Utah Lake declined severely and common carp were planted to help provide more fish flesh.
The explosion of the carp population boded ill for the June suckers. Carp rooted out and destroyed much of the vegetation needed by the suckers for nurseries and for food generation. Young June suckers use vegetation for shelter until they get large enough to avoid large predators. And the vegetation helps grow the invertebrates most commonly used as a food source for that species. June sucker populations plummeted as they were overharvested on one end and had poor spawning and recruitment on the other end.
The Utah suckers are hardier and have a more varied diet than the Junies. They maintained higher populations over the years but have also declined significantly in recent years. However, since the “average” Utah angler cannot distinguish between a Utah sucker and a June sucker there have been regulations established forbidding anglers to keep ANY suckers they catch from Utah Lake.
1849: Utah Lake tributaries diverted. As a result many fish are directed into canals and
carried onto farmer’s fields rather than back to the lake. This practice has continued
into recent times.
1872: A dam is constructed across the Jordan River (Utah Lake’s only outlet).
1886: Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) introduced to Utah Lake.
1893: Black bullhead (Ameiurus melas) introduced to Utah Lake.
1890’s: Tributary rivers drained in an effort to water farmer’s dry fields. Thousands of tons
of native fish are left out of water.
1890: Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) introduced to Utah Lake.
1906: “We found the lake trout [Bonneville cutthroat trout) had done poorly, because of low
and consequently muddy water; and the carp, which have thriven immensely, have
eaten off the mosses and similar growth along the bottom of the lake, so that the
trout have not had enough to eat. Carp are a good deal like the English sparrow once
they get into a place they are there to stay,” E.A. Tullian, Superintendent of the
United States Fish Commission, 1901.
1913: More than 200,000 acres of land are being irrigated. So much water is drained from
Utah Lake that aquatic vegetation is annihilated, and millions of fish die from overcrowding
and insufficient oxygen supply
1919: Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) introduced to Utah Lake.
1928: Last specimen of Utah Lake sculpin collected, it is now considered extinct.
1930’s: Utah Lake suffers a severe drought and shrivels to an alarming average depth of
1932: Last Bonneville cutthroat trout captured in Utah Lake.
1952: Walleye (Stizostedion vitreum) introduced to Utah Lake.
1956: White bass (Morone chrysops) introduced to Utah Lake
1986: June sucker are added to the Endangered Species List
1995: Use of gill nets to catch fish for Division of Wildlife Resources monitoring program
is discontinued in order to reduce the risk of harming native fish.
1999: A significant study reveals that wastewater treatment plants deposited more
phosphorous into Utah Lake than any other source (149.5 tons per year).
2002: June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program formed.
One of the predator species that adapted well to Utah Lake was the largemouth bass, first
introduced in 1890. Like the Bonneville cutthroat, these predatory bass foraged heavily on the
declining June suckers. But, bass were better attuned to life in the increasingly warm and murky
waters of Utah Lake. They grew big and fat.
As we see in the time-line, the last cutthroat was taken from Utah Lake about 1932. Walleyes were introduced 20 years later, and then white bass 4 years after that. Channel cats were planted in 1919. All those, together with the already well established largemouths, gave Utah Lake a top predator base of about 4 major species. Of course, there are also the bullheads (mud cats). They are predatory, and feed on the fry of all other species. But, they are also a prey species…especially when small…and they are generally considered to be near the bottom of the food chain. Also found in Utah Lake are crappies, yellow perch, bluegills and green sunfish. While these species all feed on the fry of all other species in the lake, they are themselves targeted as prey by the top predators. Walleyes and large catfish are capable of chasing down, killing and ingesting some pretty large crappies or sunfish.
These smaller species came back strong in Utah Lake after the last prolonged drought period ending in 2005 but showed a noticeable decline during the latter stages of the next drought, 10 years later. When abundant they are a major part of the primary diet of the larger predators. They spawn prolifically during high water years and become more abundant not only during the ice fishing season but during the rest of the year too. More and more anglers are learning the special tactics, tackle and techniques needed to add them to the daily catch. Over the years Utah DWR has tried just about every imaginable species in Utah Lake…either as a forage species or as a new species for anglers. Some never showed up after initial plants. Some showed mild promise but ultimately disappeared. Most of the species indigenous to Utah Lake are no longer found there, although some continue to live in tributaries. The following two tables illustrate some of the history of different fishes that were either once living naturally in the lake or which have been introduced as forage for other species or as food for anglers. It is interesting to compare the increases and declines in species populations with the chronology of events posted on a previous page.
As previously mentioned, there have been some species introduced that never showed up again. Although it is not documented, there have been reports that these species included such exotics as Chinook salmon and northern pike. While the salmon have never reappeared, there have been numbers of northern pike showing up around the lake in recent years. But it is widely believed that these are the result of “bucket biology” rather than the remnants of former plants. Part of the current ecology of Utah Lake is attributable to the now defunct Geneva Steel plant that operated next to the lake from December, 1944 until November, 2001. It was built during WWII to increase US steel production and was a major employer (and polluter) in the Utah County area. For many years it dumped a tremendous volume of untreated chemical soup directly into Utah Lake at the site known by anglers as the “Bubble up”…just south of Lindon Harbor. The warm water outflow was a “fish magnet” during much of the year and especially so during the spring. First the walleye would gather around the inflow during their spawning cycle. Then hordes of white bass would show up for their spawn. Abundant mud cats (bullheads) and plenty of channel cats liked to bask in the warmer water almost year-round too. The downside was that the foul smelling outflow from Geneva Steel penetrated the fishes’ skin and made them smell and taste like the stuff coming out of the plant. Nasty. It would break your heart to start cutting a fillet off a beautiful walleye and to have your nostrils assailed with the smell of something like creosote…or worse. The fish caught near the Bubble-up were the most susceptible to becoming tainted. But even fish caught clear across the lake often had an “off” taste
It has been almost two decades since Geneva Steel shut down operations and the flow of effluent ceased fouling Utah Lake. But, there is no denying that some of that residue will remain in the bottom sediments for years to come. The good news is that Utah Lake is shallow and gets a fairly good flushing in years with good runoff. The bad news is that there are chemical leftovers in the tissues of many fish in the lake. Thankfully, most are not enough to be of major concern. There are ongoing tests to determine what levels of PCBs are actually harmful to humans, and what the short term and long term effects might be. Unlike the situations around the country
where people have lived on or near toxic waste dumps, Utah residents who have eaten fish from Utah Lake for generations have never exhibited any unusual incidence of illness or physical deformities that can be attributed to consumption of Utah Lake fish. If the hazard was significant, it would seem that there would be a recognizable percentage of fish eaters who suffered negative effects from such rash and foolish actions. In fact, there are many of Utah’s mountain lakes and streams that have a much worse bill of health than Utah Lake. Utah’s mining heritage has left us with lots of mercury, arsenic and other nasty stuff in our watersheds. These toxic substances run into the water and taint the fish. Some of Utah’s most beautiful and pristine streams have strong advisories against eating any of the pretty little trout that live in them. Over the years there have been other chemicals that have found their way into Utah Lake too. The combination of unregulated industrial waste and agricultural runoff has added a lot of phosphates and related chemicals. As mentioned in the tables included previously, treated wastewater is a big phosphate polluter. Some of these things increase the fertility of the lake and add to algae blooms. The combined effects of low water levels and higher amounts of phosphates in the lake led to toxic algae blooms in both 2013 and 2017. During the most severe two weeks in 2017, Utah Lake was closed to all human activities. And increased emphasis was given to have the multiple waste water treatment facilities around the lake accelerate modifications to their plants to reduce the amount of phosphates they discharge.
Some folks like to live in fear and the urban legends are handed down from generation to generation. Consequently, a whole lot of Utahns today shudder when the subject of eating fish from Utah lake comes up. They just know that if a single bite of Utah Lake fish flesh crosses their lips that they will glow in the dark and grow extra appendages…or fall writhing to the ground with horrendous abdominal cramps. Not so. What probably contributes most to the erroneous perceptions of a polluted Utah Lake is the fact that it remains a big shallow bowl, with very little vegetation to hold down the silt and stifle the wind-driven waves whenever a “zephyr” blows up. Every time Mama Nature has a hissy fit the waves jump up fast in the shallow lake and the water gets “colored” quickly. Of course the carp get a large part of the blame for rooting out all the aquatic greenery and for stirring up plenty of mud themselves. But, muddy water is not necessarily polluted water. It may look like something you would not want to see coming out of your tap but it is likely safer to drink than the city water in some areas. And, it is infinitely cleaner and safer than it was during the Geneva Steel years. There is very little chance we will ever see the cutthroat trout return to Utah Lake. However, with the current emphasis on improving the lake through carp eradication and shoreline restoration it should become a healthier place for all the other species. That should make it a nicer place for human recreationalists too.