September 8, 2010

Fly Fishing Utah

Utah’s trophy fisheries in trouble
September 7th, 2010 @ 1:15pm
By Mike Radice

SALT LAKE CITY — Too much of a good thing really is not a good thing, especially when it comes to catch and release on a blue ribbon trout river. Right now on many of Utah’s trout streams and specifically on its two blue ribbon trophy trout streams that catch and release conservation-minded behavior is slowly changing the brown trout fishery and not for the better.

Two of Utah’s premiere, world renowned rivers, the Green River at Flaming Gorge, and the Provo River in central Utah are suffering from too many brown trout and anglers who refuse to take them to ultimately help the resource.

“Since 2001 we have seen the average size of the brown trout in the Green River decrease by two full inches, which is a phenomenal decrease,” says Drew Cushing, warm water sport fish coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

He says that trend is not going back up. It has not stabilized yet.

“If it has not hit bottom yet it is going too. And what we are left with is what I would consider non-trophy brown trout in what should be a trophy brown trout fishery.”

Banner trout numbers make for great fishing and catching

Difficult words to swallow for such a spectacular waterbody. But, that is the case for a seven-mile stretch of the Green River below the Flaming Gorge Dam and along at least a five-mile stretch of the Provo River. These blue ribbon, trophy trout streams draw anglers from all over the world to test their skill against battle-hardened, lure-wary brown trout, rainbows and cutthroats. Those anglers working the Green and Provo are catching a lot of fish.

The Green River

Most anglers refuse to keep any fish they fight to the bank. One of the most rewarding attributes of fishing such a pristine river like the Green River is a colorful brown trout or rainbow or even a cutthroat that took twenty minutes to land and a handful of personally tied flies. The last act of the perfect catch – release the fish back into the clear, cool water.

“The last creel survey we did (approx. 2006) showed that 95 percent of the trout overall were released. We have seen that similar trend in the Provo River too,” Cushing says. “We had a creel survey going on in 2005; it showed that only 1.4 percent of the fish in the Provo River were harvested.”

Drew said for a fishery to sustain itself and keep respectable sized fish for anglers that at least 20 percent of a fish population be removed annually either by harvest or by other mortality.

“We just are not getting it,” said Drew.

That is true state-wide for Utah.

For over 20 years anglers have religiously released every fish they have caught in these near perfect rivers. Today, the results of that loyalty are paying back in two ways – bigger rainbow trout but smaller brown trout. It has gotten to a crisis level. Trophy brown trout are disappearing. They are suffering stunted growth from over population and increased competition for available forage. The resource needs angler intervention to rebound and ultimately survive. Essentially, keep what you catch.

This past spring aquatic biologists conducted their annual survey on the Green river. Using electroshock equipment they counted over 15-thousand trout per mile in the stretch from the dam to Little Hole. It’s the highest number of fish estimated in a waterbody that size in a long time.

“What we hear from the river guides and outfitters is that their clientele are happy. They like the high catch rate even if the fish are small. It’s hard to convince them that this is a bad thing,” Cushing said.

Provo river education

Right now, quantity is more important than quality. The DWR has tried to increase harvest on the Provo River through education. Biologists talk with anglers about the quality of the fishery and how fish size has diminished over the past five years. They explain the importance of taking some fish and how it will benefit the resource, the river, and available food supplies. Drew says anglers understand the situation but can not shake the ingrained practice of catch and release.

“They are so passionate about it that I don’t know that they can be convinced. We tried to talk to the trout anglers and they understood it,” Drew said. “But we saw only a 1.4 percent harvest rate after that education took place.”

Established flow rates impact available nutrients

For over ten years specific flow rates have been managed for the Green River and Provo River. Those rates change and, on the Green River for example, the change in flow affects available nutrients for those fish. More nutrients or less will be available at different times of the year and that will have an impact on the number of fish vying for that food.

“Under that scenario there is only a certain amount of fish that can really thrive in there,” Cushing warned. “Above that you end up with smaller fish and more of them because there is only a limited amount of food to go around to all of them. And that is where we are at right now.”

Brown trout do well in that situation because they reproduce readily providing for a lot of smaller fish instead of fewer, larger trophies.

The brown trout are hardy and need little to get by. Low flow or high flow, they can still find adequate river bed sediment to successfully establish their redds to lay eggs and fertilize them.

End result for the next generation

If there is a take home message, Drew says it is time to think preservation not conservation.

“Regulations don’t work if people don’t harvest fish. If indeed we are not going to see anybody keep any fish in the Provo, the Green or anywhere else, then these ultra-restrictive regulations that are in place on some of these waters don’t work.” Drew continued, “in order for any regulation to work you have to be able to manipulate the population. If you can’t manipulate the population, if people are not taking fish home, you are not going to manipulate the population.”

The message to anglers has been conservation. Preserve the fish through catch and release for future generations to enjoy. That message worked, but it worked too well. The next generation angler holds those words dear despite the obvious, visual facts that urge them to change their practice.

“It looks like we have a natural progression toward a more conservation-minded fisherman,” Drew surmised. “That is going to be interesting in how that develops because it has gotten to the point with a lot of our fish in our fisheries that we are almost begging people to harvest fish.”

Some conservation and sportsmen groups hear the call and are working with their members to help with brown trout populations throughout Utah. But that may not be enough. Flow manipulation and other biological interventions may be required to help reduce spawning success for brown trout.

“I keep telling angler groups that you show me a waterbody that we have too much harvest on and I can create a trophy fishery,” Drew declared. “You give me that scenario and I will turn it around and give you a trophy fishery. If you don’t have any harvest I can’t help you.”

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4 Responses to “”

  1. Ross aka the flytyinfeak Says:

    But how are we supposed to fish those rivers? I thought the Utah govt. banned out of state fisherman.


  2. Tyler Skeen Says:

    All right, just curious what peoples thoughts are on this? I typically do not harvest my fish, but after reading this I think I might, at least on the provo or the green. Anyone with some good trout recipes?


  3. montana fly fishing guides Says:

    too bad, many great memories on the Green


  4. SpencerHolmes Says:

    My son and I have harvested at least 20 browns on the Mid-Provo (below Legacy Bridge) this year, lots of fish tacos in our menu. None have been over 18″ nor under 13″. We have turned back plenty of small ones however…


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