Powell area residents organize to clean reservoir, revere tasty walleyes

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Cinnamon and blue-winged teal drakes chased hens in the shallows of Deaver Reservoir as a squadron of massive American white pelicans glided in for less than graceful approaches in the clear water. It didn’t take but a quick glance to realize it’s a special place.

Snow-capped peaks on the horizon contrast the jagged rock formations surrounding the reservoir. As waves break gently, western willets dwarf least sandpipers foraging together at the water’s edge; red-winged blackbirds stand on guard atop cattails and snags, not sure what to make of frantic muskrats below.

Wildlife at the historic recreation area is at the spring peak, yet there’s also a colorful hodgepodge of refuse that catches the eye. Everywhere, after years of neglect, insidious litter.

Both new and old, cans of more flavors of soda and beer than the dozens of species of birds seeking refuge are scattered in the tall grass, against the rocks and in the shallows. Plastic bottles, cigarette packaging and strips of blue tarp cling to seedlings and nestle under brush. Broken glass, old bait containers and thousands of nails left in the blackened scars of burned pallets make travel treacherous for the bare feet of families seeking summer fun and the tires that carry them there.

But now there’s hope for a more pristine future. What started as a small, yet determined group of fishermen has grown into a force. As its first challenge, the newly organized Big Horn Basin Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited has adopted Deaver Reservoir, pledging to clean up Powell’s closest fishing resource and work to make upgrades for future access.

It all started with two walleye fishermen who decided they needed a voice in the community while sharing a couple brews in a Powell garage.

“We knew what we wanted to do but had no idea how to do it,” said Chris Fry, vice president of the local Walleyes Unlimited chapter.

Now the group is celebrating its first anniversary, 69 members strong and growing.

Walleye initially brought the dedicated sportsmen to the warm water fishery outside Deaver. Stocked with thousands of fingerlings by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department each year, stories of monsters being pulled from the waters are bringing more to Deaver in search of the delicious, toothy fish.

Pat Slater, president of the Big Horn Basin chapter, is a tournament walleye fisherman and a long-time member of the Billings chapter of Walleyes Unlimited.

“We want to do a lot of the same things. They [Billings] already had a 501(c)3 and it was easy for us to begin our chapter under them because of the difficulties establishing [a nonprofit],” Slater said. “Since our water runs into Montana, it’s kind of a natural fit.”

The Sheridan walleye chapter has also joined forces with Montana. The Big Horn Basin group’s ultimate goal is to establish Walleyes Unlimited of Wyoming. But that’s a few years off and community service, spreading the word about Wyoming’s walleye fisheries, and sharing their love for the sport are their first orders of business. It won’t take long for word to get out about Deaver.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been monitoring and stocking Deaver Reservoir for the past 22 years. Each May, teams from the Cody Region do electroshocking to measure productivity in the 30-acre body of water. They run a 60-minute test called the Catch-Per-Unit-Effort. In 2008, after finding CPUE levels well below acceptable ranges, the legal limit for walleye was cut in half, dropping the limit from six to three fish per day.

“Unfortunately, we were seeing an over-harvest of the population,” said Cody Region Fisheries Biologist Jason Burckhardt.

Lowering the limit has paid off: In the decade of monitoring from 1997 to 2007, there were only four years of acceptable walleye found. From 2008 to 2018, only one yearly test was below acceptable levels, Burckhardt said. Last year, the team counted 115 walleye in an hour; 82 of those averaged 12.2 inches, with an average weight of about a pound. The largest caught in the test was 25 inches and 4.62 pounds — a sweet walleye. Slater pulled a 15-pounder from the reservoir’s open water last year and several 10-plus pounders were pulled through the ice this past winter.

There are several fisheries in the area stocked with walleye by the Game and Fish. Slater called the opportunities in the area exceptional and mentioned several options including Bighorn Lake, Boysen State Park and, “unfortunately,” in Buffalo Bill Reservoir, where the fish were illegally stocked some time ago.

“We’re trying to help the state out by catching as many as we can,” he said.

Burckhardt said fishing is “phenomenal” in the Bighorn River and Lake for sauger, a cousin of the walleye. Native sauger in the Bighorn River are one of the last pure strains of the species in the country.

The chapter chose Deaver Reservoir because it needs a lot of work, said Jim Liner, secretary and treasurer of the chapter.

“It gets fished heavily,” Liner said. “It’s logistically close to many in the group to make it easy to work here in the future.”

Most of the chapter’s members are from Powell and the surrounding area. Deaver is unique, offering easy access to fishing for those without boats. Getting a boat in the reservoir is no easy feat, so it’s harder for those with larger boats. Raising money to build a boat ramp is one of the chapter’s goals. They’d also like to build fishing docks. But it’s going to take time and money, Liner said.

The group is planning future fundraising events and several more rounds of cleaning to get Deaver back in shape after years of neglect. The Bureau of Reclamation manages the property and would like to give it to the Game and Fish, but “there’s maintenance our Habitat and Access crews can’t take on at this point,” Burckhardt said.

However, there are plans in the works for a new boat ramp, Burckhardt said, and with a new volunteer crew willing to give the reservoir anual spring cleanings, Deaver Reservoir is on the rebound.

“It’s great that we have a group willing to improve this aquatic resource and its aesthetics,” Burckhardt said.

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