Dozens of the best spearfishermen from across the country dove into Lake Powell to shoot more than 19,000,000 pounds of fish in two days during the National Freshwater Tournament last month.
Spearfishing teams struggled with incredibly low water levels due to the drought. The last reservoir tournament in 2018 saw water levels nearly 90 feet higher. This was not the case this year, and some teams arrived a week early to scout the lake. Even teams that have hunted the lake before have found themselves in uncharted territory.
“Scouting was much more difficult because you basically had a different lake. You had to scout out like you’ve never been to the lake before. The structure and everything can change because of the water level,” says Mike Livingston, president of the National Freshwater Spearfishing Association.
In addition to changing the landscape for hunters, record low water levels created a logistically intense tournament. Only two lanes on a working boat launch were usable to get more than 20 competing boats in and out of the water under tight deadlines.
Teams used to salt water had to adapt to a whole new style of hunting. On the first day, teams were sent after game, mainly striped bass and occasionally walleye. Both are non-native species in the lake. On the second day, the spearfishers targeted the carp. Points were awarded to the heaviest fish, but it was the amount of fish that could push teams to the podium.
Instead of deep dives and long breaths waiting for big fish in blue water as they would in salt water, hunters repeatedly dived to dark bottoms in narrow canyons, reloading their weapons from dozens times per hour.
“I think I made 204 or 208 drops on carp day,” said Justin Lee, who finished first in the men’s division, bagging 82 fish over 2 days. In his native Hawaii, the strategy is to hold his breath for three minutes and dive over 100 feet into crystal clear water.
“You just can’t get the numbers you need if you’re diving like that. So you kind of have to change your whole system, your way of diving, to spend more time underwater,” says Lee.
By the end of the second day, teams were crammed into boats with hundreds of pounds of carp stuffed into trash bags and barrels. Nicole Burko shot 61 carp and three striped bass. She finished second overall in the women’s division.
“It’s a nightmare, you’re dealing with fish slime everywhere. It’s all over the boat, it’s all in your face and all over your wetsuit,” says competitor and 2021 champion Darvil McBride.
In previous years, the tournament has worked with fertilizer producers and reptile farms to donate massive amounts of carp to worthy causes. This year, the National Park Service eliminated fish from Wahweap Marina after weighing.
Although not officially considered invasive in Lake Powell by the states of Utah or Arizona, there is a large population of carp that compete for resources with more popular species. In parts of Utah, carp are managed with state culling programs to level the playing field for other fish.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Dan Keller started fishing the lake as a teenager and only remembers catching a carp with a rod and reel three times. The effectiveness of the underwater hunters impressed him, but the impact of the tournament is unclear.
“I would say, yes, delete [thousands] of fish from a reservoir as large as Lake Powell probably has no biological impact,” says Keller. “At the same time, the optimistic view is, well, that’s [a few thousand] fish out there that compete. Maybe we are freeing up resources for other species.
Eurasian carp (or common carp) have plagued United States waters since they were brought to the country for cultivation in the late 1800s. other fish populations and muddy waters as they search for food, eating anything they come across.
The creation of the lake by the damming of the Colorado River in 1963 led to the introduction of many other non-native game fish. Seabass and carp species make up the largest portion of the lake’s fish population, competing with native suckers, goosetails, and chub, among others.
Beyond the biological impacts, Keller thinks the biggest benefit is the engagement with the environment the tournament brings, bringing hunters from across the country to learn about and connect with Lake Powell’s fisheries.
The experience changes drastically from year to year with Lake Powell’s water level, which has dropped 40 feet since 2021. Keller cites varying water levels as a tool in the fight against invasive zebra and quagga mussels , which consume young phytoplankton fish. Sites where mussel colonies settle are disturbed when dams release water, leaving the mussels tall and dry.
As the lake approaches extremely low water levels in the second decade of the Southwest Megadrought, the Home Office is taking unprecedented action to maintain water levels capable of generating hydroelectric power. What’s good for energy can also be good for invasive molds, according to Keller.
“Yes [water levels remain consistent] we could have quagga mussels accumulating in really high densities and we could see impacts on fish populations because of that.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the state of the reservoir, the National Freshwater Spearfishing Association is poised to host the World Championship in Lake Powell next year, where competitors will arrive from around the world. NFSA President Mike Livingston hopes a stable, albeit low, water level will lead to a successful tournament next year.
“We will truly have the best freshwater divers from around the world all together in one place in a beautiful location to dive and show off how good they are,” says Livingston.
Lee and McBride have both qualified to return next year. Team USA gets four teams for each division: Men’s, Women’s, Mixed and Masters. Lee hopes to bring another trophy back to Hawaii.
“Spearfishing and living outside, off the land, is just the way of life. Getting some notoriety and winning a national championship, for something you learned to do as a little boy or little girl in the small town to bring home food, that’s huge,” Lee said.
Until competition returns to Lake Powell, Lee says he will train at Honoka’a and “live on cloud nine billion.”