LAKE POWELL The evidence is undeniable. First one, then a second and a third striped bass took the trailing lure and not one of the fish weighed less than five pounds. The largest was around 7 1/2 pounds.
The fourth fish was a bit smaller, but still it was more than the five-pound mark. The fifth fish, which came in after a few rounds of tossing tube jigs into the shallow rock beds after smallmouth bass, was what most fishermen have been used to catching a juvenile, maybe 20 inches long and in the area of three pounds. It was a good catch but was dwarfed when mixed in among its larger cousins.
It has been more than two decades since striped bass in the seven- to eight-pound class have been caught with such regularity at Lake Powell.
It has been that long, said Wayne Gustaveson, project leader at Lake Powell for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, since conditions have made it possible for stripers to grow so large and in such numbers.
"You can look at the drought as having a silver lining," he said as he looked over the jagged shoreline in Warm Springs Bay.
"With the lake this low it has exposed sediment that has been covered for 25 years. This sediment is being redistributed and is releasing nutrients back into the water. This has resulted in three good years of (threadfin) shad production. We haven't had three consecutive years of production like this since the 1970s. We only had two good years of shad production the entire decade of the 1990s."
Three years of an abundant food supply has resulted in large schools of very large fish prowling the lake.
"And, if we have another good year, you can expect to see stripers in the eight- to 10-pound range by next spring," he added.
The typical pattern for striped bass is more like a teeter-totter. That is, bass numbers rise until there are too many for the available food, and then numbers plummet. With less feeding pressure, the shad rebound. Then, with more food, the stripers follow until their numbers get so high again they wipe out their food base and then the cycle begins again.
When in this cycle, even during the best years, the striped bass typically fall within the three-pound class at best.
"This is unusual, but it's exciting to see," said Gustaveson. "Right now it's all based around the shad. The lake is just so productive right now, and because it's so productive the fish are just so big and so healthy."
The current lake conditions are also benefiting the largemouth bass and crappie. The lake is currently rising. Predictions are it will come up close to 50 feet. The rising water (it's risen nearly 15 feet since mid-April) is covering vegetation that has been growing along the shorelines. Both largemouth bass and crappie need this new-growth vegetation to survive.
Smallmouth bass prefer a habitat of broken rock.
"The smallmouth will continue to do OK, because the broken rock is not going to go away anytime soon," he said. "Vegetation will. But, as the level keeps coming up, we can expect the largemouth and crappie to continue to thrive."
Some of the smallmouth being caught last week were in the two- to three-pound class. Gustaveson said that with another good shad year, "we could see smallmouth in the three- to five-pound class by next year."
For years now, Gustaveson has been fighting to bring in another forage fish for the underwater residents of the lake but has been unsuccessful. A few years ago, the federal government accidentally released gizzard shad in the San Juan River, which flows into Lake Powell.
Gustaveson said the accidental introduction of the gizzard shad has been overshadowed by the success of the threadfin shad.
"But, if the threadfin do what they typically do, which is fall into a cycle and we have a couple of bad years, then we hope the gizzard shad can move in to take its place," he said.
Currently, the striped bass are in their spring pattern, which means they come up closer to the surface to feed, then go deeper to rest. The best fishing is in 30 to 40 feet of water. This pattern will continue until they spawn in early June.
Some of the best fishing has been trolling in water 20 to 40 feet deep.
Because the water in the upper reaches of the lake is holding low oxygen levels, the larger stripers are staying toward the southern reaches, between Bullfrog and Wahweap. The stripers from Bullfrog north tend to fall in the three- to five-pound class.
The smallmouth moved into spawn a few weeks ago, but colder weather pushed them back out. They returned to their nests this week with the warmer weather, but now the rising water has put those nests in waters between 10 and 20 feet deep.
The best lures to use are those that have colors similar to shad and crayfish, which are silvers and browns.
Cranks, jerks, white-colored soft plastic grubs and tubes, and spinner baits all resemble shad and work well for all bass.
According to Gustaveson, on cooler days, fish slow down, allowing ample opportunity for the fish to decide to eat. As the water warms, fish will get more active and come shallower.
Warm afternoons, he added, might be the best time to fish.
Walleye will be under suspended clay trailing off a windblown shore or washed by boat wakes or wave action.
Catfish will be prowling the bottom under all the other fish looking for an easy meal. Anchovy fishing at the dam and other historically good spring gathering spots will be good through May or until spawning occurs. Slow trolling with an anchovy harness may be the best technique to try under these conditions.
But, as Gustaveson pointed out, the fishing hasn't been this good or the fish this big in decades, "so this is a perfect time to take advantage of the opportunity," he said.For the latest fishing conditions at Lake Powell, visit Gustaveson's Web site at www.wayneswords.com.