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Hi-Line Living: Creating fish habitat at Fresno

 

February 28, 2020

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

After Christmastime each year, a project collecting and placing Christmas trees begins to build habitats for the fish out at Fresno Reservoir.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks Havre Area Fish Biologist Cody Nagel said the trees are donated by local residents, then collected and stored by the city of Havre.

He said the trees are picked up by FWP and the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited drill holes in each tree trunk to secure cables, then load and haul them out onto Fresno Reservoir.

Hill County also helps collect the trees for the effort. He added that both FWP and Walleyes Unlimited collect four to eight trees per bundle. Each bundle is anchored together to cinder blocks and then they are placed in strategic locations where yellow perch are spawning and sedimentation of structures is limited. The depths where structures are placed range anywhere from eight to 14 feet.

"Data suggests these structures provide spawning habitat for at least three to four years," Nagel said.

FWP checks structures for yellow perch spawning activity during peak spawning time, approximately one to two weeks following the ice melting, to verify selectivity of perch at these habitat bundles, he said. 

He added that the trees act as shelter and spawning habitat and provides refuge for small fish.

"We space them out anywhere from 30 to 40 feet. Anglers can also utilize them as fish holding structures, too, so it kind of acts as different things," he said. "Depending on each year, we've put about 500 trees out here in the last four years. It really is a collaborative effort between Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited. I'd call it a really good partnership."

Nagel said the yellow perch are a forage species for northern pike and walleye.

  Walleye is the primary game fish people come out to Fresno to target, he added.

He said FWP and Walleyes Unlimited are trying to supply more food for the walleye to get better growth out of them, but also build the perch population, which is another popular game fish.

"For about 11 years, we have been trapping and transferring yellow perch from the Kremlin Water Pond. We no longer have those ponds, so that fish, we no longer can supplement the population here," Nagel said. "We are really relying on this spawning and rearing habitat to allow the current yellow perch to produce some really big classes."

Walleyes Unlimited member Brian Olson said the materials will sink when the ice melts and immediately become protection for bait fish; perch, northern pike and crappie will use it for spawning.

Spawning is release or deposit of eggs.

"(It is) important to maintain a protection structure and spawning structure," Olson said. "Manpower is needed to accomplish the task, volunteers like myself donate our time and equipment to accomplish it."

Nagel said FWP is assisting with organizing and facilitating the project.

"FWP secures the proper permits, identifies the areas where structures will be placed, monitors yellow perch activity (and) use at the structures, maps (and) documents annual activities of the project, as well as long-term monitoring of the Fresno fish community," he said.

The main goal of the project is to increase yellow perch numbers, which increases the Fresno forage base and could potentially increase angling opportunities for yellow perch as well, he said.

He added that another function of these habitat structures is that they will provide critical rearing habitat for all small fishes if the structures remain inundated in late summer or fall.

It acts as protection for the fish in Fresno, Nagel said.

Olson said this is the fourth year the project has been done by Walleyes Unlimited and FWP, adding that similar projects were done in the past, but they were discontinued. 

Nagel said one of these project was done on Fresno back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and similar projects occur at Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Helena and Tiber Reservoir south of Chester.

  FWP aids and gives direction to these projects, Olson said, adding that Walleyes Unlimited provide the volunteers to help.

"These projects need to occur yearly to provide best-case scenarios," he said. "I do it because it helps the future of the fishery."

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Nagel said the process ends in February or March when the structures are placed at Fresno.

"Then we wait for Fresno to fill and completely submerge the structures for spawning habitat," he said

He said the project is a community project, with Havre- and Big Sandy-area community members donating the Christmas trees and other surrounding-area landowners also donating trees and equipment. 

"There is no disadvantage to a project like this. Anytime people can come together for a common cause, in this case it's increasing fish habitat and yellow perch numbers, it's a win-win," Nagel said.

"I volunteer my time and effort to enhance the fishery as much as I can," Olson said.

 

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