Renovated Baker Lake benefits from wild fish transfers, hatchery stocking
By angelamontana

Posted: May 12, 2020

Miles City – Anglers at the newly renovated Baker Lake are harvesting some nice-sized rainbow trout, as well as enjoying a rare opportunity to catch some decent walleye. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has worked extensively with the community to improve the fishery after a tornado severely damaged the lake in 2018.

According to FWP Region 7 Fisheries Manager Mike Backes, FWP has received phone calls from happy anglers submitting harvest information for tagged adult walleye they have caught at Baker Lake since it reopened.

This is a rare and limited opportunity, Backes said, made possible by such a high Lake Sakakawea walleye population that makes a spring spawning run into the Yellowstone River up to Intake Dam. Moving adult walleyes will not be sustainable, and anglers need to know that this was an opportunistic activity that may not be duplicated in the future when walleye numbers in the river are low or unavailable.

FWP transferred a total of 220 adult walleye from Intake Fishing Access Site to Baker Lake over the course of two sample days in early April, according to Fish Biologist Caleb Bollman. The fish had an average length of nearly 18 inches and average weight just shy of two pounds. They ranged in length from 11.7 inches to 25.3 inches and in weight from not quite half a pound to 6.4 pounds. This transfer of walleye is in addition to what was stocked and transferred in 2019.

Most of the adult walleye transferred were tagged with a yellow flow tag inserted near the dorsal fin.  FWP encourages anglers to report their catch of tagged walleye so the agency can gauge whether its stocking efforts are yielding a return. The tag includes a unique identification number and the Region 7 office phone number (406-234-0900) to assist anglers with reporting the tag return. Tagged fish can be kept or released back into Baker Lake; simply snap a picture of the tag number and report it to FWP via the phone number.

The Miles City Fish Hatchery also stocked 600 catchable rainbow trout in Baker Lake in early April. These fish, measuring 9-12 inches long, were hold-overs from last year. They were bonus fish because the hatchery generally does not have many, if any, trout this large. Unless something changes, FWP will likely not stock additional trout in Baker Lake in the near future. By fall the warm-water species (yellow perch, crappie, walleye) will be abundant enough to reduce survival of stocked trout due to competition for limited forage or become forage themselves.

Each year, 10,000 walleye fingerlings will be stocked by the hatchery. This year Backes expects the fingerlings to be stocked by about June 15. The hatchery has the walleye fry now and is currently placing them in the large outdoor ponds at the facility. It normally takes about six weeks for the fry to grow up to two or three inches, which are called fingerling. At that point, the hatchery drains the ponds and begins stocking walleye fingerlings across the state.

Backes does not anticipate more wild fish transfers into Baker Lake in the short term, based on the expectation that the adult warm-water species will spawn on their own and quickly fill the lake. Last year both the crappie and yellow perch transferred in early spring successfully spawned. This year’s fish, and the adults moved last spring, will spawn, if they haven’t already. Walleye are the only exception; they are not expected to spawn at sufficient levels to support themselves, thus the rationale for stocking 10,000 fingerlings annually.

Baker Lake was extensively renovated following severe damage from a tornado in 2018. The project involved draining the reservoir, excavating deeper areas, removing debris, adding structural fish habitat, and adding fishing docks, a pier and swimming beaches. All these efforts were intended to increase the recreational enjoyment of the lake by the community and other users. The increased lake depth should reduce the severity and frequency of fish winterkills that have historically plagued the quality of the fishery.

Backes and FWP Fish Biologist Mat Rugg worked with Fallon County Commissioners to explain what fish species were available for stocking and transfer, setting realistic expectations for different species and combinations. Community members were surveyed, and school students worked with biologists to give input on what species they would like to see.

Ultimately, the community favored an initial stocking of rainbow trout to provide an early opportunity, followed by adding the desired species of walleye, yellow perch, and white and black crappie. And now people are enjoying the fruits of the improved fishery. Anglers have shared photos of beautiful rainbow trout, and one angler called in information from a tagged walleye measuring 19.5 inches.

FWP will continue to sample the fisheries at Baker Lake in the spring and fall to monitor spawning success, growth rates and overall fish densities. Based on the fish sampling results, stocking or wild fish transfers will be used or adjusted to maintain the fishery.

Media contact: Marla Prell, 406-234-0926, MPrell@mt.gov

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