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PANGUITCH LAKE — Business owners who were forced to shut down their shops for several weeks due to the Brian Head Fire may soon get some relief.
Garfield County, the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and several local businesses are hosting a fishing tournament at Panguitch Lake to help boost tourism after the wildfire resulted in evacuations and road closures that lasted weeks.
David Ekanger, owner of Rocky Point Boat Dock, will never forget the day the massive fire sparked and the moment he heard something coming from the Clear Creek Canyon area of Panguitch Lake.
"It was a sound I would never want to hear in my life again,” Ekanger said. “It sounded like a locomotive. Like something like out of the movies."
Ekanger was told to evacuate as fast as he could. For three weeks, his business and all of the nearby businesses who rely on tourism — especially during the Fourth of July weekend — were closed.
“It was crushing,” Ekanger said. “We operate like farmers. We actually go into debt in the first part of the season and then, at the time the fire happened, was the time we actually clear and make money. So, it hit us pretty hard in the pocket.”
The tourism season in the area near Panguitch Lake only lasts for a few months, according to Falyn Owens, Garfield County tourism director.
“It was really devastating,” Owens said. “It was their biggest weeks of the year and they had absolutely nobody up here. No hotel rooms, no boat rentals, no food. Everything was closed because of the fire.”
So Owens, Garfield County Commissioner Jerry Taylor and others came up with an idea to help local businesses. The group asked the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources if they could stock Panguitch Lake with extra fish to hold a month-long fishing tournament.
On Friday morning, a thousand fish were launched into the lake — 100 of them with a special red tag. Anyone who catches one with a red tag can take it to any of the businesses in the area and receive a prize. Some of the prizes include fishing poles, fishing gear, boat rentals and even dinners. The red-tagged fish will also get winners entered into a raffle for a rifle, officials said.
“This was specifically to tell people that Panguitch Lake is back open,” Owens said. “It's kind of like a re-grand opening. The fish are hungry and they’re biting.”
Business owners hope it will attract enough fishermen and families to recover some of their financial losses.
"It's really going to be a cool experience out here,” Ekanger said. “Please come out, rent a boat, buy some food, stay in a cabin. We all need the help out here. Your patronage helps us.”
The fishing tournament will run until Sept. 4.