Warm winter, thin ice force Utah fishing tournament to cancel on 2,000 anglers

(Courtesy image | Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) The Fish Lake Perch Tournament, a popular event that started in 2015, won't happen this year. Unstable ice at the lake has forced the DWR to cancel the event.

Nearly 2,000 anglers will be grounded this month as thin ice has forced the state to cancel a popular ice fishing tournament at central Utah’s Fish Lake.

“I’ve never seen a year when we’ve had ice conditions this bad at Fish Lake,” said Richard Hepworth, aquatic manager in southern Utah for the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources.

The Fish Lake Perch Tournament, scheduled to begin on Feb. 24, will not take place this year, the DWR announced Thursday. It would have been the fourth annual tournament.

The ice at Fish Lake, normally 18 inches to 2 feet thick by this time of year, was less than 5 inches in some spots, according to DWR fishing reports. That’s not thick enough for a small group of anglers to safely fish — much less for 2,000 people, Hepworth said.

In most years, a cold spell in December or January creates an even layer of ice that thickens as winter goes on. This winter — the second warmest since scientists in Salt Lake City began recording temperatures in 1874, according to the National Weather Service — the ice layer has thawed and refrozen several times, creating inconsistent ice depths.

“If the whole lake were the same, it’d be easy to make decisions,” Hepworth said. “Instead, in one area it’s 10 inches, really safe, and two or three steps later it’s 3 inches.

“It’s scary,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ice that has formed isn’t insulated from warm days. Snowpacks in central Utah’s mountains are about 40 percent of normal for early February, said Eric Schoening, NWS meteorologist. The oldest sensor in the region, with data back to 1980, has never detected such little snow, Schoening said.

“It’s been exceptionally dry across the entire state, but especially when you get to central and southern Utah,” Schoening said.

Fish Lake, at 8,848 feet in Sevier County, is the premier ice fishing destination in Utah’s southern half, and the only lake in the state that attracts more ice fishers than boat and shore fishers, Hepworth said.

Ice conditions likely won’t improve.

“There’s a good chance it’s just downhill from here,” Hepworth said. “Days are getting longer here, it’s going to be getting warmer, and the forecast just isn’t calling for much colder weather. There are days in the 50s up there [at Fish Lake] this coming week.”

On Friday, the warm winter claimed another casualty: The popular Midway Ice Castles exhibit in Wasatch County announced it would close Sunday due to high temperatures.

Ice conditions appear on the DWR’s fishing report at www.wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots/reports_sr.php, but anglers are urged to call Fish Lake Resort at 435-638-1000 for the latest updates as spring gets underway.

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