Destination: Pelican Lake

Anglers searching for warm weather flock to Utah lake

Pelican Lake is about 25 miles southwest of Vernal and a popular place to fish in the spring. The lake particularly attracts crowd on holiday weekends, but on weekdays anglers can find lots of room to fish.

Anglers can find some nice bass at Pelican Lake, which is also known for being a world-class bluegill fishery.



Pelican Lake is a productive warm-water fishery at 4,800 feet offering largemouth bass, bluegill and green sunfish. When full it covers 1,680 acres with a maximum depth of 18 feet.

DRIVING: Take U.S. Highway 40 about 15 miles west of Vernal to Utah State Route 88. Go south on SR 88 about 5 miles to the lake. Access around the lake is on 4500 South and 14500 East and various local farm roads. Time: About 3-3.5 hours from Grand Junction.

LICENSE NEEDED: A non-resident Utah fishing license is $32 (seven days) and $70 (annual). Reciprocal permits are available for Flaming Gorge — Wyoming section ($10) and Lake Powell — Arizona section ($8). Weekly fishing reports are available at

WHEN TO GO: The best fishing is in the spring after the water warms to 55 degrees. The Utah DWR website says, “It gets very hot here in summer and the biting flies can be bad at times. Come prepared. Do not get in the water during the summer due to swimmers itch.”

As this is being written, another winter storm is moving across the high country and rivers everywhere are in seeming disarray from spring runoff.

It’s enough to drive an angler to the brink of ... Pelican Lake, about 25 miles southwest of Vernal, Utah.

Pelican Lake, so named for the American white pelicans often seen around the impoundment, is a shallow natural lake that was enlarged to hold irrigation water diverted from the Uintah River.

It sits on private and public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, with easy, mostly unrestricted access on paved and all-weather roads.

As you approach from the north, via Utah State Route 88, you see how immense is the shallow, southern-facing basin in which the lake sits and allows that early warming desired by anglers and warm-water fish.

However, the lake also sits at 4,800 feet elevation, which means spring might not arrive when you expect or want it.

“Patience is the key to fishing Pelican in the spring,” said Ron Stewart, regional conservation outreach manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “Anglers regularly rush to Pelican at ice-off and then find out warm-water fish don’t respond like cold-water trout do.”

Stewart said fishing at Pelican Lake is best after a few days of warm weather, which is expected to rule across eastern Utah and western Colorado for the weekend.

What brings anglers to Pelican Lake, other than the early season chance to get out of the house and actually catch something other than the sniffles, is the rarity of finding a world-class bluegill fishery in the high desert at the foot of the Uintah Mountains.

Once the water warms, the bluegill and largemouth bass move into the weedy and reedy shallows around the lake, where anglers in float tubes and small boats have good chance for success.

“When fishing the reeds, remember that you’re fishing shallow water. You need to use a presentation that doesn’t weigh much,” Stewart said. “You want the presentation to flutter down, not slam into the bottom.”

You might also want to increase the size of your lure or bait, since it might deter the smaller fish — of which there seemingly are thousands — from nipping at your bait.

“Because the water is shallow, you’ll often see the fish you’re pursuing,” Stewart said. “That can be a really useful advantage but remember: they can also see you.”

What you also might see is other anglers, since the popular lake draws anglers not only from Vernal and other areas in northern Utah but also — you guessed it — western Colorado.

You’ll find good parking and several developed boat ramps around the lake, but on busy weekends you’ll also likely have a bit of company from other anglers looking for the start of summer.

Because the lake is so shallow — when it’s full a wader-clad angler can walk out 100 yards or so — most anglers fish from boats or float tubes.

“If you’re fishing from a boat, please be aware of shore anglers,” cautioned Stewart, adding he recently saw 25-30 boats on the lake. “Don’t crowd into the few holes shore anglers can reach.”

It all seems to work out, he said.

Information on Pelican Lake fishing is available from many sources, including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 435-781-9453, and Big Foot Fly Shop in Vernal, 435-789-4960.


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