After a memorable fishing trip the week before, Jeff Winn was looking forward to another outing on Lower Fish Creek below Scofield Reservoir.
Instead, Winn found a different kind of memory.
“There were dead fish littered everywhere. It was frustrating to have had such a great experience just the weekend before and then see all of them dead,” Winn said of his return to the river, also known as the Price River, which is included on the state’s Blue Ribbon Fisheries list.
While standing there mourning the loss, another angler approached and filled in Winn and his fishing buddy on the situation.
“He said the water from the dam had been cut off for three days and hundreds, if not thousands of fish had been killed,” Winn said.
Curtis Pledger, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in charge of the dam at Scofield Reservoir, confirmed the water was shut off at 5 p.m. on Oct. 14 and was turned back on at noon on Oct. 17 to complete required work on the spillway.
Justin Hart, regional fisheries manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, called the fish kill “significant” and estimated approximately 1,000 trout (brown, cutthroat and tiger) may have been lost and that there were reports from anglers that some of the fish were up to 5 pounds. Utah chub, a prolific nonsport fish, were also lost in large numbers.
“The kill was contained to the upper portion below the dam for about a mile to the first railroad bridge,” Hart said. “Once you got below that first bridge the water dropped much more slowly and fish had a chance to respond and move to pools. In that first stretch of river, when the water is turned off like a switch the fish don’t have a chance to respond and move.”
Hart said no one with the Division of Wildlife Resources was notified the water would be shut off; if they had been they would have asked for a gradual reduction to allow the fish to find deep pools.
Pledger said he wasn’t sure if the Bureau of Reclamation contacted the state wildlife agency, but “we probably should have.” Even then, Pledger said, there is no required minimum water flow from the dam and the work that had to take place required a full shutoff.
While the fish kill will definitely impact fishing in the near future, trout will move upstream to fill the niches left. The long-term impact could linger for years as brown trout (the dominant sport fish in the creek) were already spawning when it happened and those potential new fish were also lost.
This is not the first time a fish kill has been associated with dam operations on Fish Creek and Hart said the fishery is stocked to compensate for chronic low-water conditions.
“We supplementally stock this water because most years we assume spawning is not possible or greatly reduced,” he said. “Water in winter/fall is sometimes very low or shut off nearly completely. Annual stocking makes up for that.”