Hawaii and Mexico don’t have anything on Fort Peck Reservoir when it comes to being a honeymoon destination. Well, at least they don’t for Kim and Chris West, of Missoula.
The recently-married couple decided last week to spend their honeymoon volunteering to help Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists with the walleye spawn on the Big Dry Arm of the lake.
Was this something that they had planned?
“Chris had some medical complications earlier this year that slowed him up a little, so to lift his spirits I told him I would love to spend a weekend over at Fort Peck at the spawn,” said Kim.
“We had fished together a few times during the past few years and even fished Fort Peck Reservoir with Kibler Outfitting” added Chris. It was during that trip that they both learned about the walleye spawn operation that FWP does every spring. FWP collects eggs and sperm from netted walleyes for the state warm water hatchery at Miles City.
About 90 million eggs are collected every year to fulfill the fingerling and fry planting requests for waters throughout the state. The spawning operation runs about three weeks, beginning around the second week of April, depending on the weather.
The West’s weren’t the only volunteers helping out last Friday. Mark Henckel, the Outdoor Editor from the Billings Gazette was on hand and I made the journey over to help Mike Ruggles and other FWP employees. Henckel, Ken Seay of Great Falls and I joined Ruggles in his boat last Friday – one of four boats working the spawn that day.
“We set up 28 nets and check them every 24 hours,” said Ruggles who heads up the operation. Ruggles said they have had a few women volunteer in the past, but he can’t remember when a couple spent their honeymoon helping out collecting eggs.
“Most of the first-time volunteers are surprised by the size of the walleyes that we get in the nets,” he said. “The majority of the female walleyes run in the four to seven pound class, but we also have quite few that will weigh in at 10-pounds- plus.”
The biggest walleye we saw on our boat was around 14-pounds. The West’s, who were in another boat, figure they saw a large female that would weigh around 12 pounds.
The nets also showed the wide variety of fish that swim in the waters of Fort Peck, including crappie, bass, cisco, catfish, river carpsuckers, carp, catfish, ling, suckers and northern pike. All the fish are handled with care and are out of the water for very short time before being returned.
“The mortality rate for the walleyes is very low,” says Ruggles. Why do they go to all the trouble in collecting eggs in the first place? “The Big Dry Arm of the lake is not conducive to being a good spawning area for walleyes” he said. “The mud that covers most of the bottom gets washed over the eggs after they are laid and basically suffocates them.”
The end result is that there is little or no natural reproduction on Fort Peck for walleyes. So taking the eggs does no harm at all.
Fry and fingerlings from about 70 percent of the eggs that atch are put back into Fort Peck. The rest are stocked elsewhere.
Because of the size of the operation and the number of people needed to get the job done, the volunteer program was put into place. “The weekends, as you can imagine, are easier for getting people to help” added Ruggles. “But, for the most part, we have always had enough people during the week as well.”
Volunteers come from all across the state, from Missoula and Kalispell to the cities and towns close to Fort Peck. Some people volunteer for a day. Others spend many days helping out.
“Without the volunteers, we couldn’t do this and we need new volunteers each year,” Ruggles said. “There are some days when volunteers make up 75 percent of our manpower.”
At the end of the day, Ruggles gives all the volunteers a hat commemorating the day out on the water. This year’s cap had a stitched walleye and the words “Fort Peck 2003 Spawn.”
What did the honeymooners have planned for the evening after a great day in the outdoors? “I think we will grab a nice meal, get a good nights rest and come back out tomorrow,” said Chris.
Would they come back next year and celebrate their anniversary? “I don’t know about next year but we will be back. It was a lot of fun,” says Kim.