FISH HAVEN, Idaho -- Merlin Olsen ignores the trophy-sized trout found in Bear Lake for the pan-sized fish in the numerous streams and creeks feeding into the popular recreation area on the Utah-Idaho state line.
'I've always been fascinated by the smaller streams and the amazing fish life,' said Olsen, an NFL Hall of Famer who starred for the Los Angeles Rams for 15 seasons.
'This last year I picked up a Forest Service map of the area and marked off all the streams I hadn't fished,' he said. 'I think there were a dozen and I've gone to all but two of them and found fish in all the ones I've tried.'
Olsen, who grew up in Logan, Utah, just 40 miles across the Wasatch Mountains where he was a two-time All America lineman at Utah State University, said he's caught native cutthroat, brook and rainbow trout and 'an occasional brown' in the tiny streams and creeks.
He now lives in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, but Olsen has a summer home on the west side of the 20-mile-long lake where mountain men and Indians once swapped furs and where wagon trains on the Oregon Trail stopped for water and livestock feed.
'This is my therapy. I like to fight my way through the willows along the streams and I like the challenge of trying to figure out where the fish are and what they're taking,' he said.
Olsen said he usually uses a spinning rod rather than a fly rod because of the overhanging branches, 'and I experiment with everything. I use small spinners and jigs, worms and salmon eggs, and an occasional fly. If the fish aren't taking one thing, I'll try something else.'
During the hot summers, the lake trout, which can exceed 20 pounds, and cutthroats, which have topped 15 pounds, descend deep into the lake. And water skiers and boaters often make fishing difficult.
But Olsen said, 'In the small streams, you're away from the crowds and you can fish just about anytime during the day.
'I've caught fish over three pounds and that's really a handful because of all the snags and willows in the steams. I've also seen bigger fish, but they're usually spawners and aren't too interested in eating.'
Fishermen take over the lake in the fall, winter and spring, when the summer vacationers are back home. But fish biologist Jim Johnson of the Utah Wildlife Resources Division claims 'the big ones are still catchable in the summer.'
'We always see people catching the planter rainbows from the shore during the summer,' said Johnson. 'But, to get the big ones, you need some fancy equipment. You've got to have leaded line or stainless steel line because you have to get your lure down 50 or 60 feet.'
The biologist said the trick is to locate the 'thermocline, where there is a drastic change in temperature between the warm surface water and the cold, deep water of about 50 degrees.'
'Most of the big fish are sitting right there on the changeline, and finding that temperature change is the secret to success on Bear Lake,' he said.
Johnson said having a thermometer that can give fishermen the temperature readings from different depths is more important than electronic fish finders.
'The cutthroat and lake trout are there and they are big ones. In fact, this is a world-class lake for cutthroat, as good as anything in the United States,' he said.
'But you've got to read the water and most anglers haven't figured Bear Lake out yet.'
To catch the big ones, Johnson said fishermen should drag a daredevil, flatfish or hammered spoon in the cold water area, 'or even let it hit the bottom. That's where the big fish will be foraging on sculpins and cisco.'
The Bonneville cisco, native only to the Bear Lake, is a tiny fish - usually less than eight inches long -- that is similar to smelt.
The cisco stay on the lake's bottom until early January when they migrate to the rocky southern shoreline to spawn.
Since the cisco are so small, fishermen cut holes in the ice and use nets to catch the small fish. Several thousands Idaho, Utah and Wyoming residents usually make the January trip to the lake during the two-week spawning run to catch cisco, and drive snowmobiles around the hillsides above the lake or ski at nearby Beaver Mountain Ski Resort.
But the cisco isn't the only one-of-a-kind fish found in the mountain lake.
'We also have the Bonneville whitefish, which is a better eating whitefish than its cousins found in streams,' said Johnson. 'And the adults generally grow to four pounds. So it's a good catch.'
Johnson said fishermen who don't like the summer months at Bear Lake will find the fall and winter is the best time to catch lake trout and whitefish 'when you'll pretty well have the lake all to yourself.'
'And the spring, right after the ice goes out, is the best time for cutthoats. They are spawning in the spring, and the best place to catch them is in the mouth of any stream or creek feeding into the lake,' he said.