Fishing Tournament Canceled After Years Of Mismanaging Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Organizers Say

Organizers of the Hell on Reels Fishing Tournament at Flaming Gorge say mismanagement of the reservoir has led to a “collapse” of the fishery and cancellation of the annual tournament.

John Thompson

June 08, 20234 min read

This year's Hell on Reels Fishing Tournament at Flaming Gorge Reservoir has been canceled.
This year's Hell on Reels Fishing Tournament at Flaming Gorge Reservoir has been canceled. (John Thompson, Cowboy State Daily)

Owners of Buckboard Marina and organizers of the Hell on Reels Fishing Tournament say they had to cancel the annual angling event because of mismanagement of Flaming Gorge Reservoir that’s led to the fishery’s collapse.

Fishermen who frequent the reservoir on the Utah/Wyoming have seen that the fishery is in decline. Fisheries managers in both states have pointed to an overabundance of juvenile lake trout gobbling up other game fish in the reservoir.

They have also in recent years increased daily bag limits on lake trout smaller than 25 inches, known as pups, and supported fishing tournaments targeting pups and burbot, an invasive predator.

Wyoming Game and Fish did not respond to Cowboy State Daily requests for comment by the time this story was posted.

Kokanee Decline

An article posted May 16 on the Wyoming Game and Fish website warns Flaming Gorge anglers not to expect to put many kokanee in the live well this spring.

“Kokanee population recruitment estimates show a decline of over 50% when comparing estimates from 2021-2022 to estimates from 2016-2019,” Game and Fish reports. “Managers are concerned the decline is a result of predation by small (less than 28 inches) lake trout.”

Wyoming Game and Fish officials expect to meet their goal of stocking 1.65 million kokanee this year. They continue to encourage anglers to harvest small lake trout and are even telling them where to target them in shallow water near the Buckboard and Brinegar’s Ferry boat ramps where kokanee are stocked from mid-May to mid-June.


Tony Valdez, owner of Buckboard Marina, sums up the problem as too many hungry mouths to feed on limited forage in a terse letter he and others sent to Game and Fish questioning how the reservoir is being managed.

Valdez also runs a fishing charter business and talks to fishermen nearly every day.

He’s advocating stocking of Utah chubs and white suckers as forage fish to help alleviate the problem and removing the limit on lake trout under 25 inches.

“My question is why in the hell has nothing been done for over 30 years of stocking a forage fish, a non-game species, and why are we stocking kokanee solely as a forage fish?” Valdez writes in his letter.

It’s a fair question. Kokanee, are a landlocked sockeye salmon that are pursued and prized all over the Intermountain Region. They’re a schooling fish making them fairly easy to catch and are revered as excellent table fare.

Anecdotal evidence gathered by Valdez at the docks and during recent fishing tournaments shows kokanee absent from fishermen’s creels and sizes declining among lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout.

“After the Lucerne Marina derby 5/20/2023, at the weigh station at Buckboard Marina, there was not one single kokanee weighed in this year in 2 days!” Valdez’s letter states. “In fact, there were only eight fish weighed in here, rainbow trout and brown trout. 

“One look at the brown trout weighed here, you could tell they were badly emaciated with big heads and skinny bodies.”

Not A New Problem

During the 2020 Hell on Reels tournament, fishermen had a hard time reaching minimum lengths for fish to qualify under the rules.

In 2021, the minimum length of fish that would qualify was dropped to 20 inches long and in 2022 it was reduced again to 19 inches.

“As anyone can see, there is a big issue with the steady decline in available game fish and size for the recreating public and sports man and woman,” the letter states. “Kokanee numbers are down from over 4 million repeat spawner kokanee in year 2005ish to no repeat spawner kokanee in 2022.”

Valdez added that more needs to be understood about burbot and smallmouth bass predation on kokanee.

Less Water, Too

Also, last August the Bureau of Reclamation dropped the level of Flaming Gorge by 1 million acre-feet to provide water to downstream reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The drawdown continued through the fall and resulted in a 30-foot drop in the reservoir’s surface level. This change could be part of the negative effect on kokanee recruitment, Valdez writes.

Another concern Valdez raises relates to the economic value of kokanee to the surrounding counties. He says he couldn’t find anything on the value of fishing Flaming Gorge on the Wyoming side, but a 2003 study conducted in Utah shows each kokanee caught cost the angler $75.98.

According to, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area sees about 2.5 million visitors a year. The reservoir is a 91-mile-long impoundment on the Green River.

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John Thompson

Features Reporter