G&F addresses concerns about trophy fish at Flaming Gorge

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department held a public meeting in Evanston earlier this month to discuss the Flaming Gorge fishery. (GAZETTE PHOTO/Rana Jones)

EVANSTON — It was a packed house at the Beeman-Cashin building in Evanston as Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials discussed the Flaming Gorge fishery on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Green River Fisheries Biologist John Walrath shared a brief history of the reservoir, covering past and present data, to provide anglers with an understanding of the current status of the sport fisheries. The presentation included possible management options moving forward as high numbers of small lake trout remain a concern for fisheries managers.

Game and Fish hopes to encourage more angler harvesting of small lake trout.

Walrath said, “This lake trout issue is not a new problem. We are trying to educate anglers how to take advantage of that population.”

There has been a slowly growing problem with the increase of the small lake trout.

“The Gorge is not alone in this situation,” Walrath said. “Other waters around the western U.S. have already gone through this high abundance of lake trout to recover sport fish. Whatever actions are taken on the Gorge, we want to see it be a success story.”

Part of the problem with the abundant small lake trout is that they opportunistically eat young sport fish before they have a chance to mature. Game and Fish would like to see anglers harvesting more than five small lake trout per day.

The Gorge is considered one of the most popular reservoirs in the state and attracts anglers across the U.S. for the kokanee and trophy lake trout.

The 90-mile-long reservoir is co-managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Trout species include rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout which are stocked annually to reach the 700,000 trout quota each year.

Kokanee salmon were first stocked in 1963, with a stocking objective of 1.65 million each year. They serve as forage for trophy lake trout. The prized lake trout were stocked in 1979, and trophy size is considered more than 28 inches.

After the presentation, anglers expressed concerns about the high number of small lake trout and the amount of young kokanee these small predators consume. They expressed frustration about catching fewer kokanee and wanted to hear about potential solutions.

Walrath said they wanted to get data out to the public so when they come up with solutions people can be more informed.

“We have heard the suggestion to actively reduce the small lake trout,” he said. “Our prior actions relied on anglers doing this, but it is becoming clear that anglers alone might not have the impact we need.” 

In response to the suggestion that anglers catch more small lake trout, a member of the audience said that people do not come to the Gorge to catch small lake trout; they want kokanee and trophy lake trout. Certain strains of fish simply will not grow past a certain size, explained Walrath.

Walrath said they understand that anglers desire the kokanee and big fish, but if they keep the small lake trout instead of releasing them it will reduce the impact of predation on the fish they want to catch.

He suggested, “Keep those fish and put them towards your limit. They are not taking away from your kokanee opportunity.”

Game and Fish has considered additional actions, such as targeted netting. Walrath said that may result in the slow recovery of the kokanee population but there are issues with netting, including cost.

Another netting issue is crayfish. Walrath said it is a cumbersome process to remove them and he encouraged the help of anglers in addition to netting. He also noted the derbies are almost more effective at catching small lake trout than netting. It was suggested that targeting lake trout during the winter season would help increase the kokanee population.

In the audience was captain and founder of Flaming Gorge Charters Randy Browning, who thanked Game and Fish for the presentation. Browing said his clients want to catch the big lake trout, but his concern was on the kokanee population.

“What are we going to do for the kokanees right now?” he asked.

Browning had a few suggestions to help the kokanee, including a no-release rule on the fish regardless of size. He also said kokanee should be removed from the derbies.

“I think it is a two-fold problem” he said.

Walrath said another reason that kokanee catches have really tapered off in the last few years is due to the water level in the reservoir; however, it was maintained that the biggest impact on kokanee is predation from lake trout.

“This is not a new issue,” Walrath said. “In the ’80s, stocking fish was the answer. Now we know the kokanee population decline is due to predation, lower reservoir levels and an increase in anglers. These compound together, and it has taken its toll over the years.”

Another suggestion from the audience was applying a bounty on fish. Walrath said there are things on the table being discussed, each with pros and cons.

“We can look at what people have done in other waters about the lake trout issue,” he said, “but each water is unique. The hiccup is always going to be … who is paying the bill?”

An audience member suggested that most anglers would not mind paying a conservation fee if the money had a positive impact on the Gorge.

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