Fishing's not what it used to be

Thursday , February 22, 2018 - 12:00 AM

SPENCER DURRANT, Special to the Standard-Examiner

The fishing used to be great.

Back in the day, we caught big fish all the time.

Now, I don’t even see fish in the river anymore.

I hear those phrases a lot. When folks find out you write about fishing for a living, it’s like they found an invitation to tell you their favorite fishing stories. Most of the stories I hear from anglers in Utah start with those phrases.

The state’s changed a lot since the early ’90s, when fly fishing exploded in popularity. Utah isn’t what it once was, in both good and bad ways. I’m not happy with the population growth. But, we do have In ‘N Out now.

In that same time span, I’ve noticed a bigger change in Utah’s backcountry, though I do spend more of my time there than puttering around the Wasatch Front. I’m not old — I still get called a “whippersnapper” by guys with gray in their beards — but in the past five years I’ve watched a local stream go from housing 20-inch brown trout to being seemingly barren.

Do those changes really mean that fishing in Utah isn’t what it once was? And if that’s the case, will we ever see those “glory days” again?

It all depends on what your definition of “glory days” is. Back in the ’80s, big brown trout dominated Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Strawberry was full of chubs, and in the late ’90s to early 2000s, Scofield was the place to find tons of big rainbow trout.

Now the Gorge is a lake trout/salmon/rainbow fishery, Strawberry produces fish that seem to hover around the 16-inch or higher mark, and Scofield just received a menagerie of predator fish in a last-ditch attempt to reclaim the fishery.

Oh, and Yuba isn’t a walleye lake anymore. It’s hardly even pike paradise, since the only fish left are them and the carp.

If you want those old fisheries to return, you’re in for a long wait. The habitat in the Gorge has changed drastically since the ’80s. That habitat change, which occurred through natural processes common with big reservoirs, eliminated a major food source for brown trout: chub. Combine that with a rise in lake trout and smallmouth bass populations, and it’s easy to see how the browns just diminished.

Collectively, there’s not much we can do to make something into what it isn’t. A great example is the horrendous waste of money spent on razorback sucker and bonytail chub conservation. The Green River isn’t anything close to what it was back when those baitfish thrived. The Colorado pikeminnow was the top predator in the entire Colorado River system back in those days.

Things change, though, and the Colorado — including its tributaries, like the Green in Utah — houses pike, carp, catfish, bass and who knows what else. Instead of accepting this defeat and managing the fishery for the opportunity it presents now, though, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year trying to force the Colorado River system to change. The river is a different place now, and could be an even more remarkable fishery if certain regulations didn’t stand in the way.

Fishing here in Utah isn’t what it was. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to get better, or isn’t better in some degrees than it was back in the good ol’ days.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has been featured in Field & Stream, TROUT Magazine, Hatch Magazine and various other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

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