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GARDEN CITY, Rich County — Disco may by be dead, but the yearly “Cisco Disco” is very much alive and thriving each year, becoming a beloved winter event for people seeking a unique fish species to Bear Lake that’s typically hard to find.
The event has been a yearly tradition dating back at least three decades in what was first a small gathering. Bonneville cisco enthusiasts travel to the banks of the lake to find the fish in the middle of their spawning run, said Scott Tolentino, a fisheries biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife.
On Jan. 26, northern Utah residents and other outdoor fans of this tradition will celebrate it again.
That morning, visitors will align the shoreline, with most heading to a place affectionately called “Cisco Beach.” There, they are allowed to catch up to 30 of the small fish with a small, hand-held net. Tolentino said many people come, catch some Bonneville cisco and fry the fish on the beach.
“We encourage people — if they are interested — to put bring their cookers and they can cook cisco right on the beach. They’re pretty easy to catch and cook,” he said. “It’s an annual celebration of the cisco spawning run and gives us something to do in the dead of winter.”
The tradition has grown in size over the years. It’s now a portion of the winter extravaganza Garden City hosts called “Bear Lake Monster Winterfest.” It begins with events Friday, Jan. 25, that run through the next day. The events include a polar plunge into the cold lake and a and a chili cook-off the same day as the “Cisco Disco.”
However, for many, the Bonneville cisco are the main attraction.
The fish only exist in Bear Lake and nowhere else in the world, and spend about 10 days in mid-to-late January near the shore to spawn, according to Tolentino. While unique to the lake, the Division of Wildlife calculated there were about 7.5 million Bonneville cisco as of 2018.
“When they gather together to spawn, they come in along rocky shoreline areas, which is where they prefer to spawn,” Tolentino said. “They’ll drop their eggs. Since they’re in the very shallow, rocky areas, people are able to see them.”
The fish species have “pointed mouths, slender bodies” and can grow large as about 9 inches, according to Utah Fishing Info.
It’s unclear exactly why the fish only thrive in Bear Lake. Wildlife officials have tried in the past to expand the species elsewhere in the U.S., but those efforts weren’t successful, Tolentino said.
“It might be a matter of those fish being adapted to the unique water quality of Bear Lake — the cold, clear water,” he said, noting the lake is believed to be at least 100,000 years old. “It also might be because Bear Lake has native fish that have evolved together and waters they’ve tried to move them to have other predators.”
Bonneville cisco then return to the middle areas of the lake after the quick spawning run, where they spend the rest of the year largely unseen.
The fish has become popular because of their taste and the rarity to catch them. Many will fry them on the shore, while some anglers will catch them and store them for cutthroat trout bait during the summer.
“It’s a time of the year when people have mostly put their boats away and they’re in the middle of ice fishing or whatever and the hunts are over with, so they’re just sitting around with cabin fever,” Tolentino said.
The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest begins Jan. 25 with most events scheduled to be at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina, 940 N. Bear Lake Blvd. in Garden City. Entrance fees are waived for those attending the event, according to the event’s website. The website suggests the best time to catch Bonneville cisco is around sunrise Jan. 26.
Tolentino added about a dozen free hand-held nets will be provided for those hoping to fish for Bonneville cisco. He added since cisco is a game fish, it’s not legal for persons to sell the fish and all people above 12 must have a fishing license to catch the fish in a net.