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Fish and Fowl at Pelican Lake

Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2001

VERNAL, Utah (AP) -- Most anglers would rather hit their finger with a hammer than divulge a hot spot. Typically, you have to pry their mouths open with an oyster knife.

Pelican Lake in eastern Utah is the exception. There are too many fish for it to matter, and besides, who knows if it will be there next year?

Myra White stands behind the reception desk at Vernal's Super 8 Motel, raises her eyebrows and shakes her head dreamily when somebody mentions Pelican Lake.

''I love Pelican,'' she said. ''Topwater, bass. The action, and watching them come up and grab it ...''

She has been to both Pelican Lakes south of Vernal. There is the first one, a sparkling desert oasis with clear water and jumbo fish, rimmed completely by reeds full of birds in an explosion of shapes, sounds and sizes, a place where the fishing is better than those cheesy fishing shows on TV. It's nonstop at times, better than a bite-every-cast because if you miss the first fish, another one pounces on your cast. Paddle to the deep water side of a reed bed, toss out a fly or a plastic mini-jig tipped with worm and hang on. The action can make the nearby Green River seem like a dead zone.

Then there is the other Pelican Lake, located in the same spot. It is a stagnant slough of parasite-filled irrigation water that turns a swimmer's skin itchy and red. More insects than in the Everglades feast on visitors' blood near the shoreline, and motor-boaters pick bugs from their teeth. The fish have hideous yellow grubs in their fillets, and the scraggly surrounding sagebrush desert floor crawls with enough vicious fire ants to make camping an extreme sport. Sudden windstorms swamp boats trying to trailer and send campers sprinting after uprooted dome tents cartwheel across the sage flat.

Which Pelican Lake you get depends on the day.

Many people come to fish, some come for the birds, and all enjoy both. In spring, the water is clear and the reed patches are large aquariums full of platter-shaped bluegill, hyperactive little bass and the occasional hulking lunker cruising subsurface through the reeds. But the birds are the real extravaganza.

Every spring, the docile do-do bird of waterfowl, the ugly, meek, too-common-to-be-cool American Coot, puts on a wild, violent show. The Kung Fu theater mating display of the coots is a first-rate act. Like the hyena, they are an animal that nature seemed to not finish. A black chicken head and beak transplanted onto a body that resembles a large pigeon with the tail cut off (not finished), they swim with a jerky-neck motion. Below a stumpy rear end are strange flappy feet that aren't quite webbed. They will peck stupidly at a section of reed floating in the water for an hour, as though they have not even figured out how to eat yet.

The scorn of duck hunters, they are like a native starling of the marsh. But in the spring, they clash like black warrior-chickens.

A raging coot may swim in low and fast like a water serpent to blind-side a rival with peckings and foot lashings, water flying everywhere. Others face off in groups and jab at each other while pumping their wings wildly, standing up on the water and tangling their feet in a great squawking wrestling match. The winners spin around and show a huge white rear-end feather display.

It lasts all day. Overhead, enormous pelicans cruise like great white pterodactyls, terrorizing the fish with a shadow that sends them streaking through the weeds. Fish-eating ospreys glide, tuck, then hit the water like an ICBM. They never miss.

Blue wing teal mate and nest here, and big western grebes do their erotic water dance. All the while, garish yellow-hooded blackbirds sing loudly, hawking some reed side haven they would sell to some lucky lady.

White comes to Pelican for the friendly people, the birds, and the fish. Each year, she takes her favorite top-water lures -- Torpedoes, Rapalas and others -- and meticulously paints them top-secret bass killer colors with fingernail polish. If necessary, she'll do it out on the water.

''The place is crazy,'' she said. ''You just keep trying until you figure out what they want that particular day. You just never know.''

The bass are small and everywhere at Pelican, typically 10 to 13 inches. But she saw a man catch and release a 7 1/2-pounder from the dock last year.

''The people are great, so friendly,'' she says. ''It's not the party and water ski crowd.''

The fishing is actually better now than when Pelican was in its heyday in 1985, when nearly 150 boats would hit the lake on a Saturday, when the limit was 20 fish. It took people 6 or 7 hours to catch that many. The fishing can be much faster than that now. But the fish aren't quite as big ... yet. The largest bluegill, the 11-inchers, are 7 years old, and they should again be the norm by next year if the lake doesn't winter-kill due to low water levels after a year of overdrawing from local farmers.

That's what happened to Pelican in 1988, when every bluegill in the lake was killed and only a few bass survived. They were restocked seven years ago in small numbers, and the big bluegill baby-boomer year-class that followed is on the way.

It will never be a resort site. The insects are terrible, but they are what make the fishing and birding so extraordinary. Sudden 40-mph winds are common out here, and a few drownings have resulted.

But overall, Pelican Lake is as close to perfect as a glorified irrigation pond can be. Besides, those parasite grubs in 80 percent of the lake's fish flesh are edible, and easy to spot and pick out. And that nasty parasite that causes swimmer's itch?

Great news! Man is a dead-end host, and the condition clears up after a few days.

The birds will suffer, too, when water levels drop.

''They should never do anything to put it in jeopardy. It'd be very sad. It's the most fantastic place to take little kids fishing I've ever seen,'' White said.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)



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