Paradise for Lunkers
By: Stan Jones
Lake Powell is one of the wonderlands of the West. Formed eight years ago by waters of the Colorado River backed up by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Utah-Arizona border, the serpentine waters have inundated the hundreds of estuaries where half-submerged trees and logs make Lake Powell a fisherman’s paradise. Stan Jones, whose fishing knowledge has resulted in his title of “Mr. Lake Powell,” tells you how to fish for these giant lunkers.
HUGE, SPECTACULAR Lake Powell is now seven years old. And, for the angler, it has come old age. Its deep, clear waters teem with eight varieties of fat and healthy fish. Each season finds each of the species larger in size and numbers. In Powell, living things grow at a fantastic rate.
I’ve had the good fortune to explore and fish this unique body of water since its beginning. Today, more than ever before, Lake Powell offers an unparalleled combination of excellent fishing and superb scenery. What I enjoy about fishing Powell is its “open season” (day and night every day in the year) and the fact that I can fish for largemouth bass, rainbow and brown trout, crappie, bluegill and green sunfish. walleye pike or catfish— all in the one lake. What more could an angler ask?
My home in Page, Arizona stands almost on the shore of Lake Powell. I can roll my boat into the blue waters of Wahweap Bay whenever I wish. The waterway is so vast and so replete with canyons, coves and bays that I virtually disappear in a matter of minutes, returning to a favored glen or discovering a new hideaway where I might fish for hours without sighting another craft.
When fishing Lake Powell, be sure and have a strong net for the large mouth bass and for these beauties
But these pleasures are not reserved for those of us who live in Lake Powell Country. You can share the joys of this grand, new lake, too. One word of caution: marine biologists describe Lake Powell as “exotic”, meaning that its geological and ecological structure differs in many ways from that of most other lakes where any of those same eight varieties of fish may also be found. Thus, at Powell, the angler may find that fish with familiar names may not respond in familiar ways because they inhabit unfamiliar” environment.
The longer I cling to the Isaac Walton cult the more I realize that no man is a genuine, unbiased, dependable, completely knowledgeable authority on fishing. But my love of the sport and my years in pursuit of Lake Powell’s denizens have given me some small insight into the nature of Powell’s “exotic” underwater terrain and the often unusual habits of its remarkable fish population. So I offer this introduction to the lake’s species in the hope that it might assist DESERT readers to enjoy Powell’s fishing as much as I do.
If Lake Powell, like Scotland’s Loch Ness, harbors a seldom-seen but much talked- about creature of the deep it must be the walleye pike. Each year nets of marine biologist census-takers reveal increased numbers of walleyes. But only a few anglers have brought in the pike by rod and reel.
The largest concentration of walleyes is in Padre Bay, but nets reveal them in other areas, too. Their insatiable appetite for the big lake’s thriving threadfin shad population ensures that the species will continue to follow shad schools into all of Powell’s waterways.
Considered a native, rather than a planted fish, walleye are thought to have “escaped” into Lake Powell from a tiny, older lake on Utah’s Green River far to the north. Powell’s clean, deep water has provided an ideal climate for a pike population explosion. The species is certain to become more and more important to the lake’s sportfishing.
Named because of its white, blankstar corneas, the walleye is actually a variety of perch, not a true pike. It lives in deep water, feeds late in the day, and pound for pound can give any other Lake Powell denizen plenty of competition in the fightin’est fish race. The walleye’s potential life span is about seven years and an individual can grow to great length. Slim and sleek, with a snout that makes Jimmie Durante’s look like a wart, the Lake Powell walleye responds best to trolled artificial lures resembling minnows.
In the middle of Powell’s Padre Bay stands a natural unnamed gravel island that has a special appeal for the lake’s walleyes. Waters surrounding the isle are especially deep and cold. Schools of shimmering shad periodically meander around so that the larger fish have only to lie in wait for an evening meal. From those depths the census takers have netted walleyes as large as nine pounds. Anglers who troll around the island have not fared so well. Powell’s record rod and reel catch weighed five pounds, three ounces.
My favorite lures for walleyes are small silver spoons (to which a short length of pork rind can be added); a three-inch black and silver Rapala, or one of several of Poe’s Loco-motion plastic plugs. But none of these trolled lures seems to cause Mr. Walleye to blow his mind. Only if the spirit moves him will he stir his long torso and dart after the bait, clamping down on it with those big, ugly jaws, then turning to head for the deep.
From that moment there is little question about the walleye’s ability to make war. And it will be a war fought on his own ground-—in the cold, dark waters of the bay where he will use every trick short of surfacing to convince the angler that all walleyes should be allowed to remain right where they are found.
Few people want to work as long and as hard as is necessary to bag a significant number of walleyes. But I anticipate the day when a good percentage of Lake Powell anglers will seek out special challenges; a day when a man’s piscatorial prowess will be measured by the number and sizes of walleyes he can wrest from the depths. The walleye bag limit is six fish. I know of no one who has brought in such a catch.
The angler who is out strictly for fun (and some especially good eating) can have a ball at Lake Powell by going after black crappie. First planted in 1965, that species found Powell’s waters ideal for breeding and for a high rate of offspring survival. As a result, small plate-shaped crappie arc everywhere in vast numbers and many individuals have grown big and fat.
Although crappie traditionally seek roiled waters in warm shallows such is not the case at Lake Powell. Catches can be most easily obtained in clean water at the base of sheer cliffs; in clean waters surrounding gravel shoals and islands, and in the clean shallows of slim canyons. I continually snag crappie while trolling for bass in such places, especially during summer months. No matter how large a lure I troll the crappie seem anxious to dart after it. Many of my “unwanted” crappies were smaller in size than the plug that hooked them !
Also known as “calico bass” the black crappie is not quite the scrapper that is its beautiful mid-western cousin, the “strawberry bass.” But its meat is equally as delicious. The average individual will weigh in at about three-fourths of a pound, but some of the older crappies have survived for four or five years and have grown to pie-tin proportions. Marine biologist Steve Gloss of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources tells of one Powell crappie that weighed two pounds, four ounces!
There is no bag limit on black crappie; methods of hooking them seem limitless, too. Crappie fishing remains a favorite of kids who like to still-fish with worms or bugs. A youngster can throw such bait into Powell’s water at almost any point along its 1,800-mile-long shoreline and chances are he’ll end up with a stringer of the little panfish. Unless the juvenile angler is fourteen years old he needs no license at Lake Powell.
If you insist on instant fishing success try for this spirited little denizen. And if you like your catch fried over a campfire there is no fish more pleasing to the outdoor palate than the sweet-meat black crappie.
BLUEGILLS AND GREEN SUNFISH
Bluegills and green sunfish are native to the canyons of the Colorado River and they have thrived since being trapped in huge Lake Powell. They will respond to anglers in much the same manner as black crappie. But the angler looking for a special thrill may want to pursue these lively fish with a fly rod.
To stand in an open boat and whip a tapered line out across the placid lake surface can be a demanding, but rewarding experience. Some fair-size bluegills and sunfish can be expected to rise to your choice of a fly. Half-pounds are common; the census-takers report that some individuals grow to weigh a pound!
The bluegills, sunfish and crappie- all true sunfish — share a bright, shallow realm, prefering sunshine, sandy bottoms and, where possible, moving water. In spring they may inhabit the upper ends of Powell’s 91 major canyons where runoff can cause clear riffles, sparkling falls and sometimes muddy torrents to pour into the lake. They feed on shad, not on verdure at the bottom, so near-the-surface fishing is the rule.
There are no possession limits on bluegills or green sunfish. Considering the fact that they have been trapped in the big lake for only seven years, and that the all-time American bluegill record is four pounds, twelve ounces, Powell’s bluegills are coming along well. Perhaps some avid fly enthusiast will net one the size of a frying pan during the season.
There is one denizen in Powell’s waters that may not appreciate the normally clean nature of Powell’s “exotic” underwater realm. It is the channel catfish, the only species that remains quite typical of his kind everywhere. Native to Glen Canyon long before men dammed the Colorado River, big old cats continue to haunt the few muddy bottoms to be found in Lake Powell Country. Although doughballs, guts and other “untouchable” baits are as effective at Powell as elsewhere, a surprising number of catfish are caught on waterdogs!
Best catfishing is at the heads of wide bays such as Wahweap, Warm Creek or Bullfrog where new rises in the lake’s level can create instant verdure-choked mud-holes in which cats love to wallow. Because it is not stalked like other species, the catfish is not considered by many anglers to be a true sporting fish. But, in the West, there are a growing number of small-boaters who like to sit in the sun in less scenic areas and try for strings of the delicious, homely critters. The bag limit is 24 fish.
Among the eight species of game fish in Lake Powell none has caused more recent comment than the German brown trout. Not because of its numbers—there are relatively few in the lake—but because of several giant specimens landed by surprised anglers who were actually seeking rainbow trout. As Desert Magazine went to press Powell’s brown trout record stood at a remarkable seventeen pounds, two ounces. But in the past such records have not survived for long.
The sleek, red-spotted brown trout in Lake Powell are said to be runaways from Navajo Lake on the San Juan River in New Mexico. Winding their way down the long canyons to Powell they set up housekeeping as though they really belonged. And so they do, for the important “exotic” conditions at Powell have contributed to a significant survival and fantastic growth rate for the browns.
Two conditions typical of Lake Powell are in large part responsible for the brown’s healthy existence and abnormal growth. First, the lake’s water is especially clean and marine biologists say, “the cleaner the water the faster browns grow.” Second, Powell does not freeze over during winter. This is very important to the brown because the species is a great user of oxygen. In bodies of water that are frozen over for long periods (especially if covered by snow that shields inundated oxygen-producing plants from the sun’s rays) the brown trout can actually breathe himself to extinction.
Where are Powell’s biggest browns and how to fish for them ? No one really knows. But the brown’s habitat and habit patterns are historically those of his close cousin, the rainbow trout. My advice is to go rainbow trout fishing and, although the odds are long, maybe Mr. Brown will take a liking to your lure.
So if you want to go fishing and get away from the problem of having another angler ramming your boat or snarling your line . . . if you warn to work hard for the big ones or just lazily relax in the sun and let the others take your hook . . . and if you want both spectacular scenery, clear blue waters and a combination of swimming, relaxation, peaceful camping under open smog-free skies and the companionship of others who enjoy the great outdoors- then try ray fishin’ hole—Lake Powell.