A half-century ago, when Utah’s Fish Lake became a hot destination, most anglers relied on 12- to 15-foot aluminum boats with small outboard motors.
Now, there are more visitors bringing their fishing rods, and they tend to prefer larger, more powerful boats that don’t easily fit into the aging marinas serving southern Utah’s most popular alpine lake.
The U.S. Forest Service recently greenlighted major overhauls to these three privately owned marinas, which operate by permit on Fishlake National Forest land, as well as new amenities to improve access from the weed-choked shore and to view fall salmon spawning runs now underway on the lake’s tributaries.
Using federal grants, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently began a multiyear project to dredge, upgrade and expand the marinas, according to Stan Beckstrom, DWR’s southern regional assistant aquatics manager.
“They are small, built in the 1960s. They have seen little improvement since then and the lake’s recreation has grown in popularity,” Beckstrom said. “They are too small to handle the boats used now.”
The lake supports 160,000 angler hours per year, nearly all in rented boats served by Lakeside, Fish Lake Resort and Bowery Haven marinas. Beckstrom said there is a dire need to help visitors fish without the use of boats and make it easier to launch the popular pontoon boats.
“We are always looking to improve conditions for anglers," Beckstrom said.
The division is seeking permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge and build jetty structures for enhancing the marinas. That agency is fielding public comment through Sept. 12.
At 8,800 feet above sea level, the six-mile-long Fish Lake is famous for perch and lake trout. It also harbors rainbow and brown trout, splake, tiger muskie, and, most recently, kokanee salmon, which DWR introduced in 2015.
This bounty of nonnative fish lures thousands of visitors to the lake, but an invasive water plant has made it impossible to fish from the shore. That has put more pressure on the boating facilities, where the docks and ramps are in such poor condition that they are no longer safe, according to the Forest Service’s environmental analysis of the marina upgrades.
“Many of the docks are narrow and made of wood; this results in unstable and slippery conditions, and high maintenance efforts. Many dock anchor points are substandard, creating unsafe conditions and frequent maintenance needs,” the analysis states.
DWR is not concerned the improvements will lead to a spike in visitors that would exceed the lake’s capacity. This is because anglers take a lot less space than powerboaters and water skiers, according to Beckstrom.
“The water never gets warm enough for water skiing. It is strictly fishing,” he said. “The lake is big enough for a lot more boaters and the fishery can handle more fishing. You can still have an area of the lake to yourself."
Since the 1980s, an invasive infestation of Eurasian watermilfoil has formed dense mats of vegetation extending up to 100 feet off the shore, according to Beckstrom. Unless the lake is frozen, you need a boat to fish.
DWR and the Forest Service are not able to rid the lake of the noxious weed, but they are looking for ways to improve fishing access. That includes a plan to build a massive pier to enable shore fishing for the first time in years.
Since a successful introduction in 2015, Fish Lake is now home to southern Utah’s only self-sustaining population of kokanee salmon, attracting visitors to watch September spawning runs at Twin Creeks. As part of the first phase of the marina project, DWR has completed a network of boardwalks along Twin Creeks so people can enjoy the salmon runs without tramping the stream banks.
The agency will hold a salmon-viewing event Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Fish Lake Lodge.
“The new boardwalk will make it much easier to enjoy this awesome event,” said Phil Tuttle, a DWR conservation outreach manager.