CASPER, Wyo. — Before burbot drifted down the Green River into Flaming Gorge Reservoir, smallmouth bass, trout and kokanee flourished.
And before those popular game fish, there were the relatively unknown, and unpopular, flannel mouth suckers.
The native suckers are now mostly gone after losing habitat, hybridizing with other fish and competing for food with legally introduced trout, bass and kokanee, said Robert Keith, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Green River fisheries supervisor.
Formerly abundant smallmouth populations have dwindled to new lows from burbot predation. Kokanee and rainbow trout are also threatened.
Game and Fish is proposing new regulations that would tell anglers to kill all burbot that they catch in southwest Wyoming. But in other parts of the state where burbot are native, they are studied and conservatively managed.
Burbot isn’t the only species in Wyoming that faces different regulations depending on the region.
A proposed walleye regulation change would increase harvest limits in Alcova Reservoir, while stricter walleye regulations were placed recently in Glendo Reservoir.
Why the disparity among species of fish and regions in a state where only a handful of sport fish are actually native? Answers from fisheries experts and anglers vary. Most say it boils down ecosystems and each angler’s background.
Keith doesn’t want to think about Flaming Gorge’s future if burbot were left unchecked. A voracious predator, burbot will feed on any fish up to half of their size.
“We’ve cut open 30- to 32-inch burbot and pulled out 15- to 16-inch kokanee and 13- to 14-inch smallmouth,” Keith said.
The biggest burbot recorded in Flaming Gorge was 42 inches long, which means it could eat another fish up to 20 inches.
Burbot aren’t native to Flaming Gorge, but neither are bass, trout and kokanee. The difference is that burbot were stocked illegally by anglers with no sense of possible repercussions. Bass, trout and kokanee were stocked by biologists with a better handle on how each would work together, Keith said.
“We don’t have the level of predation that burbot evolved with to keep them in check,” Keith said. “And we don’t have the food resources to sustain the population.”
Left unregulated, burbot would eventually eat most of the fish in the reservoir.
“It scares me to think of what could happen,” Keith said.
Walleye, another voracious predator, faces increased fishing limits in Alcova Reservoir. Alcova is managed as a trout fishery because of anglers’ desires and habitat, said Al Conder, Casper fisheries supervisor for Game and Fish.
The reservoir is shaped like a bathtub, which limits light and the forage fish that walleye need. Colder water temperatures also make it better suited for trout.
It could be managed as a good rainbow and brown trout fishery, or at best a mediocre walleye one, Conder said.
None of the fish are native to Wyoming.
In August 2009, British anglers publicly mourned the death of a 25-year-old common carp named Benson, according to a story in the British newspaper the Daily Mail Reporter.
It weighed 64 pounds and had been caught by more than 60 anglers from around the world. The fish was worth tens of thousands of dollars, the article stated.
Carp are valued in some parts of Britain more than any other fish, said Casper angler Daren Bulow. He’s heard stories of carp guides telling fishermen if they catch a brown trout to throw it on shore.
In Wyoming, it’s the opposite.
“Carp aren’t a valued species here,” Bulow said. “When I say I went carp fishing, people lose interest.”
Many anglers consider them a nongame trash fish, a nuisance in our local waters.
But for Bulow, carp fight like no other fish. Most fly-fishermen are lucky to catch trout weighing more than five pounds. Bulow catches dozens of carp weighing more than 10 pounds and some more than 20.
He doesn’t advocate stocking carp. Bulow believes existing ecosystems should be left alone without additions that could have unforeseen consequences.
Most anglers agree Wyoming should work to protect its four native species of cutthroat trout. They were here first. It’s the rest of Wyoming’s sport fish, such as some trout species or walleye, that can cause disagreements.
“I think it’s how you were raised and how you grow up,” Bulow said. “It’s a cultural norms thing where everyone values something different.”
He credits his Midwest upbringing for his love of carp. He learned to catch big fish that fight.
For Evanston angler David Richter, it’s smallmouth bass. They fight, they jump, they’re hardy and they can be challenging to catch.
Richter grew up fishing for bass in farm ponds in South Dakota. In Wyoming, Flaming Gorge is the place to catch them, he said.
Maybe they’re not native, Richter said. But they’ve been there long enough, coexisting with the other legally introduced fish. They may as well be from here.