By Brett Prettyman
The flash of silver I saw as a fish fought to throw my hook would have been welcome on any other day, but not during a bass tournament. The fact that Flaming Gorge Reservoir anglers fishing for smallmouth bass are catching rainbow trout illustrates just how plentiful and just how easy it is to catch the coldwater species.
While it is true that many of the anglers at Flaming Gorge are pursuing behemoth lake trout, chasing a five-fish tournament limit of smallmouth bass or hoping to land some tasty kokanee salmon, the fact remains that rainbow trout make up the largest part of the creel at this diverse fishery on the Wyoming/Utah border.
Although an official creel study has not been done since 1994, Utah fishery officials at Flaming Gorge do not expect much has changed at the 91-mile 42,000-acre reservoir.
“Rainbow are still the most sought after species throughout the year,” said Flaming Gorge project biologist Roger Schniedervin. “They play an integral role for a couple of reasons: They provide a family fishing opportunity for folks who are not into all the sophisticated equipment some people use for the other species, and rainbows provide the bulk of shore fishing at the Gorge.”
Flaming Gorge Dam was completed in 1963. As the reservoir filled, the only fish in the reservoir were catfish and Utah chubs. Fishery officials promptly planted rainbows, in what has become an annual occurrence. Eventually, brown trout and lake trout found their way to the plentiful new reservoir where the Green River used to be.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass were introduced in the late 1960s in hopes they would help control a burgeoning chub population. The largemouths never found a niche, but the smallies did. Smallmouths are so plentiful at the Gorge, that the Utah and Wyoming B.A.S.S. Federations each hold several tournaments there each year. Utah Division of Wildlife officials also sometimes catch smallmouth from Flaming Gorge for introduction into other waters.
With a plethora of all the things needed for a perfect fishery, the Gorge provided excellent fishing for about 25 years before problems started to appear. In the heyday of the Gorge, three Utah state records for trout were set.
Robert Bringhurst kicked things off in 1977 by landing a 33-pound, 10-ounce brown trout. Del Canty set the state rainbow record in 1979 with a 26-pound, 2-ounce rainbow and Curt Bilbey got a 51-pound, 8-ounce lake trout into his boat in 1988. Bilbey’s fish remains the biggest ever caught in Utah, at least on record.
But the big fish eventually ate themselves out of house and home and the frequency of people reporting trophy-sized fish began to diminish by the early 1990s. After depleting the chub population in the Gorge, the lake trout started looking elsewhere and found a viable option in kokanee and rainbow populations.
Fishery officials feared a crash was imminent, but Wyoming and Utah anglers had different ideas on how the huge reservoir should be managed. Wyoming anglers wanted to manage the Gorge as a trophy lake trout destination and Wyoming officials were obligated to make that happen. Utah has always been about providing fishing opportunities for families. Low catch rates and the long hours required to catch the big lakers don’t jibe with kids casting salmon eggs from shore for cruising rainbows, or even with casual boaters trolling for salmon in the big bays of the Gorge.
The debate about managing Flaming Gorge heated up in 1993. Utah officials wanted to increase the slot limit on the lake trout to reduce some of the pressure on the rainbows and kokanee. Wyoming was happy with the restrictive limit on lake trout and wanted it to stay the same. About 55 miles of the reservoir is in Wyoming and the remaining 36 in Utah. Although Utah has a smaller portion of the water, officials say 70 percent of the trophy-sized lake trout come from the Utah side of the lake.
The states had different rules on the reservoir for several years, but have since adopted the same regulations for all fisheries.
The prey/forage base balance at Flaming Gorge is still in a state of flux but appears to have reached a sustainable level. Utah fishery officials are stocking larger rainbows (8 inches) and are doing it in late May when the lake trout have stopped cruising the shallows and are headed for deeper water.
The large predators are still picking off an occasional rainbow and seem to know when the stocking truck or barge is in the area. In late May 2002, bass anglers practicing for a buddy bass tournament at the Gorge saw a UDWR truck dumping rainbows in the reservoir near Sheep Creek Bay. Assuming there may be some big lakers chasing the rainbows, one angler put a 10-inch pla
stic rainbow on his line and missed a quick strike before hooking and landing a 14-pound laker.
Fishing from shore is best in the cooler months. During the spring, starting in April, the rainbows are fond of worm and marshmallow combinations, cheese and Power Bait. Most fish take the bait off the bottom, but fishing with a night crawler, cheese or Power Bait suspended about 3feet below a bobber is a fun way for children to participate.
Anglers may also want to try small- to medium-sized spinners, spoons, Rapalas and brown, black or olive marabou jigs. As mentioned previously, many smallmouth anglers catch rainbows, so try methods more common to smallmouth fishing.
Weighted tube jigs in a variety of colors may produce a quick limit in the spring and fall months from either shore or boat. Lace the jigs with a little Smelly Jelly and hold on for a quick response.
Realizing the rainbow potential at Flaming Gorge, many flyfishers are beginning to stop at the reservoir rather than just pass it on the way to the famous Green River below the dam.
Some fish from shore, but many use float tubes or kick boats to fish protected bays. Woolly Buggers, leeches, scuds and Renegade patterns work well when fished with sinking tip or sinking lines. Fishing those same patterns behind a casting bubble works well for those fishing with spinning gear.
Schniedervin suggests the following places to look for rainbows from shore: Flaming Gorge Visitor Center, Mustang Ridge, Sheep Creek, Linwood Bay, Antelope Flats, Anvil Draw, South Buckboard, Breeze Hill, Sage Creek and the Confluence.
Trolling along the shoreline in these places is also productive. A flasher and worm combination on monofilament is a popular method. Jake’s Spin-A-Lures, F6 Flatfish, No. 5-No. 7 Rapalas, Shad Raps, Super Dupers and a variety of other spinners and lures also work well.
As the summer approaches and the water warms, rainbows head for deeper water, making fishing from shore more difficult. Trolling the same lures, but with leaded lines to get deeper, will still be productive.
Rainbows return to the shallows in the cool temperatures of fall. Look for them in areas like Jarvies Canyon, Carter Creek, Sheep Creek, Linwood Bay, Squaw Hollow, Big Bend, Halfway Hollow and Firehole at this time.
If and when Flaming Gorge freezes, rainbow fishing can be good through the ice in 10 to 30 feet of water with small jigs, spoons or ice flies tipped with salmon egg, night crawler, Power Bait of frozen chub meat.
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