Pleasant Grove resident Buckley Jolley lands and releases 30.5-inch fish

ORANGEVILLE — When Buckley Jolley felt a heavy pull on his fishing rod, he knew he was close to seeing something extraordinary. It was a weighty realization, knowing a possible once-in-a-lifetime fish was dangling on the end of a 7-pound fly line and fighting to get away.

Buckely Jolley shows the 30.5-inch splake he caught and released at Joes Valley Reservoir in November 2017. The DWR recently certified the fish as the largest splake ever caught and released in Utah.

"He felt heavy," Jolley says. "I had to play the fish just right and let him run if he needed to run."

From the shore, Jolley began to see broad flashes of color through the turquoise water at Joes Valley Reservoir in central Utah. Jolley's line held, and with some patience and finesse, he landed the fish in about 15 minutes, "which felt more like 30 minutes," he says.

"When I pulled him out," he says, "I was just amazed at how big he was. It was pretty epic."

That fish, a 30.5-inch splake, is Utah's new catch-and-release record for the species. The Division of Wildlife Resources made the new record official on Jan. 24. It supersedes the previous catch-and-release record for splake, a 29-inch fish that was also caught and released at Joes Valley Reservoir in 2015.

Splake are a hybrid cross between lake trout and brook trout, and they carry desirable traits from both parent species. Splake provide memorable opportunities for anglers while serving as a component of healthy fisheries in lakes and reservoirs.

Joes Valley is home to other species, including tiger muskie and cutthroat, rainbow, brook and tiger trout. Remarkable as a 30.5-inch splake is, the reservoir is no stranger to big fish.

"That's the great thing about Joes Valley," says Calvin Black, the DWR's assistant aquatics program manager in southeastern Utah. "You always have a chance at a fish like that."

In fact, biologists predict the reservoir will produce an especially high number of trophy-caliber splake in the next couple of years. Data trends from annual fall gill net surveys show the portion of splake between 20 and 24 inches long has increased from 4 percent in 2013 to 34 percent in 2017.

"A percentage of those fish are going to bump up into the 24-inch-plus trophy range," says Daniel Keller, the DWR's native aquatics biologist in southeastern Utah. "We're predicting really good years in 2018 and 2019."

Biologists attribute the consistent growth to several factors. One is a decrease in Utah chub, a prolific fish species that competes with trout for food and space. Tiger muskies, a top-level predator, have helped curb chub populations in Joes Valley, allowing trout to survive longer and grow faster, Keller says.

Higher water levels from snow runoff in recent years have also played a part in boosting productivity in Joes Valley.

"We're right at that nice level where the trout are doing exceptional. Our average splake there is 18 inches," Black says. "It seems to be a good balance right now."

Tips for fishing at Joes Valley

Jolley caught his record splake in mid-November in 15-20 feet of water using a white streamer fly. Similarly, other anglers do well during the fall and spring months, when the trout are feeding in shallow areas (25 feet of water or less). Tiger muskie fishing picks up during the summer. Most of the best fishing happens before noon or at dusk.

Large trout and tiger muskies prey on chub, shiner and crayfish, so lures that imitate those are especially effective. When ice fishing, try using brown, green or white tube jigs or spoons tipped with chub meat. Ice fishing is often best near points of terrain that slope down into the water, where there's plenty of structured habitat. When fishing from open water, spoons, rapalas and streamers work well for trout and tiger muskies.