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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Fish winterkill may provide opportunity at Hollecker

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Glendive’s Hollecker Lake is currently a sad sight, with dead, rotting fish floating all over its surface, but Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials believe the large fish kill in the lake may actually present an opportunity to turn it into a better fishery.

“It’s kind of an opportunity to start over,” said Mike Backes, FWP Region 7 fisheries manager.

Backes visited Hollecker on Wednesday to investigate the fish kill and survey the lake for any remaining live fish. He said all the initial evidence points to winterkill as the cause of the dead fish at Hollecker, along with other stocked lakes and ponds across Eastern Montana.

“We’re seeing winterkill kind of across the whole region in all directions,” Backes said.

The fact that there are still live fish in Hollecker is further evidence that the cause of the fish kill there was winterkill and not some parasite or disease, Backes added. Using electrofishing, he turned up about two dozen live yellow perch and a few suckers in the lake when he visited on Wednesday.

“If it was anything other than winterkill, you’d expect it to kill everything,” Backes said. “That, again, is another tell-tale sign of a winterkill. A lot of times, there’s no rhyme or reason as to what fish it kills.”

The majority of the dead fish floating on Hollecker’s surface are non-game fish — carp, drum and suckers.

Backes noted that this is the first time in his career with FWP that he has seen winterkill at Hollecker. He said the reason it happened this year is because of the abnormally high amount of snowfall across the region. 

Deep snow covering the lake for long periods of time this winter prevented sunlight from penetrating the ice sheet, which in turn prevented the lake’s aquatic vegetation from producing oxygen through photosynthesis. That in turn caused the vegetation to die and decay, which consumed even more of the available oxygen in the lake’s water, eventually killing off fish due to asphyxiation.

However, the major winterkill on Hollecker may actually be a blessing in disguise, Backes noted.

“The silver lining is it provides an opportunity to start over, which at Hollecker is probably a good thing,” he said, noting that would mean completely draining the lake and removing all remaining fish from it.

FWP has spent decades trying to establish a sustainable family fishery in Hollecker to very limited success. Backes said a major part of the challenge with the lake is it’s fed by the Buffalo Rapids irrigation canal, which allows non-game species from the Yellowstone River to invade and establish themselves in the lake. FWP didn’t put all the carp, drum and suckers currently floating dead atop Hollecker in there — they entered the lake through the canal while in their larval stage.

“Over the course of time, you’re going to end up with a lot of non-target (fish),” Backes said.

Beginning in 2005, FWP began trying to turn Hollecker into a warm-water yellow perch/largemouth bass fishery, but that hasn’t exactly worked out the way they had hoped. Backes said Eastern Montana’s climate just isn’t conducive to allowing largemouth bass to grow to any kind of size or to establish themselves in large numbers, meaning the Hollecker fishery has become dominated by yellow perch, offering little real opportunity to catch anything else.

That is except for the 8-inch rainbow trout FWP stocks Hollecker with each spring just prior to the annual Kid’s Fishing Day. Prior to 2005, FWP irregularly stocked Hollecker with a variety of trout species, including Yellowstone cutthroat trout and bull trout, and Backes said turning Hollecker back into primarily a trout fishery might be the direction FWP will go with it again, as he noted their main goal with Hollecker is to provide a good place for local kids to fish, and stocked trout are easily catchable on a variety of baits and lures.

Whatever FWP does with Hollecker in terms of fish stocking, Backes said he will be working closely with the local chapter of Walleyes Unlimited to determine the next course of action. 

“I’m going to try to support whatever direction (Walleyes Unlimited) decides to go,” he said.

Don’t expect that to mean walleye being stocked in the lake, however, as Backes said Hollecker just isn’t conducive to establishing walleye in it. 

Ultimately, given the fact that FWP has difficulty keeping non-game species from the Yellowstone out of the lake, Backes said whatever kind of fishery they decide to turn it into next, they may very well begin draining it and starting over again every few years.

“The best scenario might be to every five to six years to do a draining and refill it and start over,” Backes said. “I think that’s where the discussions are probably actively going now.”


Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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