Category Archives: Fishing

Elusive crawdads provide good sport at Grantsville reservoir

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

Weston, 7, wades into the choppy waters of Grantsville Reservoir during a windstorm on Aug. 7 while fishing for crawdads.

The following originally appeared in the August 12, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“Anything, Dad?” asked 8 year old Bridger as I lifted my crayfish trap from the shallows of Grantsville Reservoir last Saturday.

“Empty again, pal,” I shook my head in disbelief. “Sheesh!”

A stiff wind swept northward across the lake’s geometric surface, sending white-capped waves tumbling erratically toward shore.  This was somewhat expected—Grantsville Reservoir’s location makes it a perpetually windy place.  But that evening’s winds came on the tail of a thunderstorm and were unusually harsh.

The normal weekend crowd had apparently taken note.  Our closest neighbors were a lone fisherman about 20 yards down shore and a black gull that hovered above us in passive flight.  I sunk the box-shaped trap again, too frustrated to notice the pleasant marriage of breeze and humidity, or to contemplate the way the both the lake and the distant Oquirrh Mountains reflected nearly the same deep blue hue.  The clock was ticking, after all.  There was no time for contemplation.

The sense of urgency reminded me of the Discovery Channel’s reality series, Deadliest Catch, which documents crab fishing in Alaska.  The show features scene after scene of cranes hoisting box-shaped traps called “pots” from the depths of the Bering Sea onto the decks of various crab boats.  Sometimes the pots emerge chock full of king crab.  Other times they’re nearly empty.  In the case of the latter, footage of the skipper’s disappointed grimace is accompanied with a somber narration from voice artist Mike Rowe.

“For Captain Clint and crew,” Rowe might have read from Saturday evening’s script, “Harvesting the elusive Orconectes virilis has proven especially difficult.”

Empty. Again.

Unlike Deadliest’s skippers, I wasn’t facing rogue waves, frigid subarctic overspray, or even foul-mouthed deckhands.  But what loomed for me was no less terrifying: the prospect of writing yet another column about getting skunked at Grantsville Reservoir.

Call it musings of a failed outdoorsman, I thought.

The boys and I had come to the lake hoping to net a bucketful of Northern Crayfish for some shore-side surf and turf.  That may seem odd, considering that ninety-eight percent of all crayfish harvested in the United States come from Louisiana bayous.  But the Cajun delicacy flourishes here too.

Crayfish—or crawdads, as I grew up calling them—can be found in many Utah lakes and rivers that don’t freeze to the bottom during winter.  The buggy crustacean prefers rocky, clear water bodies at elevations lower than 8,000 feet.  If I didn’t know better, I might say Grantsville Reservoir was created especially for its crawdad population.

But I do know better.  The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources considers crawdads an Aquatic Invasive Species because they eat fish eggs, displace native organisms, and otherwise wreak havoc the lake’s natural ecosystem.  As an eco-minded outdoorsman, subtracting a bucketful of the pesky crustacean from the habitat every now and then is the least I can do.

And I’m not alone.  Hordes of eager harvesters descend on the lake each summer to net the “poor man’s lobster.”  Most people catch them by combing the rocky shallows with fishing nets or angling for them with raw chicken parts tied to a string.  The box trap method is less prolific, but it’s catching on.  Most people boil them on the spot, since it’s illegal to remove live crawdads from the vicinity and dead crawdads only keep for about 10 minutes.

A wildly successful outing last summer left the boys and me with high expectations, so I was especially bewildered when we pulled into a nearly empty parking lot Saturday.  I stuffed the trap with plenty of chicken and a hot dog for good measure, then sank it in last year’s hot spot.  Bridger and Weston, 7, walked the shoreline.  4 year old Coulter pretended to be a pirate, as he normally does when he’s around water.  1 year old Dillon threw rocks.

Crawdads scurried visibly from crag to crag but were too deep to reach with nets.  Closer to shore, aggressive wave action blurred our view of the bottom, making the chase maddening and near impossible.  Bridger dove at a large crawdad and grabbed it with his hand, only to lose it with an incoming wave.  It was becoming quickly apparent why the usual crowd had stayed away.  Our last hope was the trap, which was consistently coming up empty.

“I saw a bunch of people here last week catching those things like crazy,” the lone fisherman commented as he reeled in for the evening.  The gull, having danced on the wind for two straight hours, decided to call it a day, too.

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

“As night falls,” I could almost hear Mike Rowe say, “Captain Clint raises the white flag.”

Ironically, that was the moment my spirits began to rise.  With the burden of the catch lifted, I was free to notice the water’s darkening blue, and that it actually felt warmer than a swimming pool.  My pace slowed.  I smiled.  Perhaps I wasn’t a failed outdoorsman after all.

Naturally I hadn’t thought to pack buns or condiments, so we devoured our hot dogs plain.  After dinner, Weston waded down the boat ramp until he was in waist-deep—sweats, shoes, and all—then he stood and let the waves wash around him.  Bridger fashioned a makeshift fishing pole from discarded parts he had scavenged from the banks.  Coulter continued his pirate ways.  Dillon threw more rocks.

As the sun dipped behind the Stansbury Mountains, I pulled my trap for the last time.  Nothing.

“Those were the best hot dogs I ever had, Dad,” said Coulter, breaking character just long enough to reassure the ol’ skipper.  “And it’s ok—we can catch plenty of crop-dads tomorrow.”

Best hot dogs ever.


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Skull Valley springs spout from marvel of desert geology

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

A tributary runs through Skull Valley near Horseshoe Springs. Looking down on Skull Valley from the Stansbury Mountains shows a secret water world in the desert (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the July 27, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Nothing says “desert” like a mouthful of dust.  Or an eyeful or a couple nostrils full, for that matter.  You might say I should have known better than to get out of my car so soon after stopping along a dirt road in the dead of summer—that I should have considered the mile-long dust wall that was cresting behind me like a giant breaking ocean wave.  I blame the lapse in judgment on curiosity.  Curiosity and the genius who posted a road sign typed in an 8-point font.

The sun had barely risen above the Stansbury Mountains and Skull Valley was awash with soft light.  I was about a mile out on the road that bisects the valley and leads to a place called 8 Mile Spring on the flanks of the Cedar Range.  No sooner had I shut my car door than the raging wall of alkaline particulate swallowed me whole.

Call it evidence of the desert’s endless ability to overwhelm the senses—a poignant reminder that out here things are rarely as they seem.

Take the landscape, for example.  At first glance, Skull Valley can appear to be completely desolate.    But a closer look reveals an array of natural oases where unorthodox fauna abound.

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

At the heart of Skull Valley’s wetland system is a collection of geothermal springs that issue warm, brackish water.  Though understated, these springs are a major component of Skull Valley’s geology.  They’re also the source of the valley’s original namesake—Spring Valley.

Historians haven’t definitively concluded on the reason for the name change, but it’s possible that “Skull Valley” also derives from the springs.  According to legend, Spring Valley became Skull Valley upon the discovery of an inordinate amount of buffalo skulls on the valley floor near the springs.  Local historian Don Rosenberg thinks an unusually harsh winter was to blame.

Rosenberg theorizes that heavy snows drew herds away from the mountains and down to the springs, whose warm surrounding terrain remains snow-free all year.  Once the all the exposed grass around the springs was eaten, the herds had nowhere else to turn and died where they stood.

Understanding the science behind these springs can be daunting—especially since no exhaustive study has been conducted on them.  Worse yet, geology is yet another facet of real life where my Political Science degree has proven less than useful.  Terms like “forced convection” and “Quaternary fault scarps” make me quake in my boots.

An unnamed pool near Iosepa. Look past the moss lining the pool-- that's crystal clear brackish heaven in there (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Fortunately, the guys at the Utah Geological Survey regularly make painstaking efforts to demystify these concepts for me.  UGS geothermal expert Robert Blackett described the recharge/discharge cycle to me as a function of precipitation, gravity and pressure.

The process begins in the mountains with rain or snow melt.  While much of this precipitation travels down toward the valley in streams, Blackett said a certain percentage percolates into the ground and seeps slowly downward through the bedrock via fractures.  When the water hits a geologic dead end, it’s forced back upward and is discharged from the ground as a spring.

In the case of thermal springs, water is heated by the earth’s interior as it travels.  A thermal spring’s discharge temperature depends on distance traveled and obstacles encountered along the way.  Deep-reaching water that rise quickly without mixing with cooler water discharges as a hot spring.

The Skull Valley springs are believed to mix with cool ground water before discharging as warm springs.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a warm spring as any spring ranging in temperature between 68 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit.  The average temperature of the Skull Valley springs is 70 degrees Fahrenheit—about 8 degrees cooler than the average swimming pool.

The temperature and water chemistry differ slightly from spring to spring, but some are probably interconnected and all are brackish from the minerals they’ve picked up along the way.  Several support populations of planted fish.

According to UGS documents, Skull Valley’s 8 major thermal springs collectively discharge 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year.  Discharge flows northward and eventually drains into the Great Salt Lake.  Blackett said the recharge cycle for thermal springs tends to much longer than that of cool springs.  Citing the lack of study of the area as a caveat, Blackett said it’s possible that the warm water discharged from the Skull Valley springs fell as precipitation as far back as the last Ice Age.

If you’ve been to Skull Valley, you’ve probably stopped at the twin Horseshoe Springs, which flow together to form a distinctive inverted “U.”  I grew up swimming in the deeper north spring.  Diving to the source with goggles was always an eerie endeavor, as it very literally is a portal to another world.

The Horseshoe Springs were designated a Federal Wildlife Management area in 1990.  The pools sustain a small population of carp and largemouth bass.  Fishing is permitted, but good luck catching anything.  This hole is famous for its belligerent fish.  Many an angler wonders if the bass there haven’t simply caught on to our hook-and-bait scam.

On my way home that morning, I stopped at Horseshoe Springs to pay regards to the elusive bass.  I considered jumping in for old time’s sake, but didn’t.  Hearing the gurgle of water against this barren backdrop was satisfying enough.


Some of Skull Valley’s springs are visible on the valley floor west of SR-196.  Some are located on private property, others on BLM land.  Horseshoe Springs is publically accessible year-round.  Bug repellent is a must. For more information, contact the BLM at (801) 977-4300.


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Reservoir provides magic to help unlucky angler break dry streak

The following originally appeared in the July 16, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Rod and (standard size) fly-casting bubble against the sunset over Settlement Canyon Reservoir (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Rod and (standard size) fly-casting bubble against the sunset over Settlement Canyon Reservoir (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

I owe the sales rep at the sporting goods store an apology.  I know it’s not his fault the store was out of standard fly-casting bubbles last Friday, or that it was my last of half dozen stops on a fruitless, hour-long quest for the uncharacteristically elusive fishing staple.

I probably didn’t need to explain to him that these bubbles are essential for bait fishing in the region, and that he may want to have his bosses order more of the standard size in the future, instead of the huge Easter egg-sized version that every store still had plenty of.

He was probably glad when I begrudgingly grabbed an egg bubble anyway and checked out.

It didn’t help that I was already fretting about the afternoon’s fishing venture.  I’ve seen a fair amount of past success in the sport, but my track record since I started writing this column has been dismal.  For me, regardless of skill or gear, angling in local waters these days feels like playing a slot machine.  Sure, there’s technically a chance I’ll win, but the odds are unmistakably in the house’s favor.

But this time would be different.  It had to be.

First, I vowed to maintain a positive attitude.  It may not have been
apparent to the sporting goods guy, but I was pretty upbeat about this
trip.  We were only short one bubble, after all.  My wife, Meadow, was
excited and the boys were itching to break in their brand new Star Wars spinning rods.  We had a box full of Power Bait, a bag full of gummy SpongeBob Krabby Patties, and a cooler full of pop.

More importantly, my aunt Tammy would be along.  I’ve fished with Tammy since I was a toddler, and I can’t remember the last time she was skunked. She pulls trout out of the water faster than I can clip them on the stringer.  By inviting her, I was virtually guaranteeing that at least one person in our party would reel in more than algae clumps.

We arrived at Settlement Canyon Reservoir late in the afternoon and set up on the eastern shore near the creek inlet.  The lake’s navy blue surface extended westward, almost blending with the distant sky but for the narrow strip of rocky earth that formed the dam’s crest.

This spot is my favorite on the lake both because of the view and the
ambience.  Settlement Creek is piped off further up the canyon, emerging again just yards from where it enters the lake.  It’s the first place you can hear the gurgling of a formidable mountain stream every spring.  It also offers the only shade along the reservoir’s rather drab 4,140 foot shoreline.

The reservoir lies at the foot of Settlement Canyon just south of Tooele.  It was created in 1966 by the Settlement Canyon Irrigation Company by impounding the creek with an earth-fill dam.    It supports populations of brook, rainbow, and brown trout.  The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources stocks it with 15,000 rainbow trout annually.  Howard Clegg, erstwhile president of the irrigation company once commented that “any kid in town could go up there and fish if he had a little ambition.”

And you’ll certainly need some ambition to reach the lake’s southern shores, since the steep trails leading from the parking area to the shore are more suitable for mountain goats than people.  We started conveying the kids and gear via these trails but ultimately decided to pay the canyon fee and drive to the Dark Trail parking area, where a lengthy but level trail leads out to the shore.

Tammy caught our first trout not 20 seconds after her first cast, using dry, leftover salmon eggs.  If my luck were as bad as hers was good, it was going to be a long afternoon.  I fed the egg bubble onto 3 year old Coulter’s line because I knew he’d be the least disappointed if he didn’t catch a fish.

Weston caught our second fish, a decent sized rainbow that he couldn’t wait to cook.  Bridger followed up with another rainbow, which he released “back into the wild.”  The bites came in steady waves all afternoon and into the evening.  We passed the time between hit waves by corralling the babies and studying our lines.

Ironically, it was Coulter’s odd rig that caught the largest and most fish. After reeling in two sizeable rainbow with it, I started to wonder if the cursed Easter egg might actually be giving him an advantage.  The lake is over 60 feet deep in some areas with an average depth of 25 feet.  The filled bubble sank his bait further than the others, possibly exposing it to larger trout at lower depths.  Meadow and I took turns fishing with Coulter’s Star Wars/Easter egg combo.

Another irony I must mention is the beauty of the lake’s setting and clean water in contrast with its heavily littered shores.  Beer cans, glass, and other trash marred almost every stretch of the southern shoreline.  I was embarrassed, as this was Tammy’s first visit to the reservoir and I was playing the role of host.  When we packed up, I gathered as much extra trash as I could carry in attempt to leave it cleaner than we found it.

Fortunately, the good fishing overshadowed the litter and made the day a memorable one.  My bad luck streak, it seems, had finally ended.  Whether it was the attitude shift, Tammy’s karma, or the giant bubble, we’ll never know.  That’s okay, because it should be easy to recreate all three conditions in the future.

Especially that bubble.

To get to Settlement Canyon Reservoir, drive south from Tooele on SR-36 and turn left at the Masonic Lodge.  Continue for about ½ mile to the large parking area just outside the canyon gate.  The entire shoreline is accessible– but mostly via steep, primitive trails.  The reservoir and its shores are privately owned.  Public use is allowed but is restricted to shore fishing.