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Thursday, March 22, 2018

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Hollecker to be drained, stocked as trout fishery

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

All indications are that Hollecker Lake will be permanently transformed into a stocked trout fishery following last winter’s major fish kill which left the county-owned lake’s ecosystem in tatters.

The local chapter of Walleyes Unlimited has been given the lead on deciding what to do with the Hollecker fishery, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Matthew Rugg, given that the lake is not owned or managed by FWP, but by Dawson County. 

“It’s county-owned, it’s not FWP property, so having a local group drive those decisions seems to work out best in these cases,” Rugg said.

Local WU chapter president Brian McDonald said that at this point, the only logical option for Hollecker appears to be making it strictly a stocked trout fishery.

“(FWP) has kind of given us the reigns and that’s about the only solution we’ve been able to come up with,” McDonald said of making Hollecker a trout pond. “(FWP) really had no other ideas. That seems to be the only thing that can be planted in there routinely and thrive.”

For a long time, Hollecker was managed strictly as a stocked trout pond. Prior to 2005, FWP irregularly stocked Hollecker with a variety of trout species, including Yellowstone cutthroat trout and bull trout.

Then beginning in 2005, FWP began trying to turn Hollecker into a warm-water yellow perch/largemouth bass fishery, but that never exactly worked out the way they had hoped. FWP Region 7 fisheries manager Mike Backes had noted in the immediate aftermath of the winterkill last spring that 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.

Another major problem for the success of game fish in Hollecker has been the number of “trash fish” — species like carp and suckers — that are able to get into the lake due to the fact that it’s fed by an irrigation canal coming out of the Yellowstone River.

“That pond is real tough to manage and control the species of fish in it,” McDonald said.

He added that WU installed fish screens on the canal inlet several years ago to try and control the entry of fish from the canal, but he said that doesn’t appear to have been very effective in keeping undesirable fish out of Hollecker, which tend to outcompete the desired game fish for the limited resources in the small pond ecosystem. Besides larval fish fry probably making it through the fish screens, McDonald said he is also fairly certain that some of the undesirable fish in Hollecker got there not through the canal, but by people dumping them in there. Rugg noted that recent FWP sampling counted up to a dozen different species of fish in Hollecker when it is only intended to have a couple of game fish species.

Facing those challenges, McDonald said WU is discussing the idea of completely draining and flushing the lake every two to four years or based on when FWP sampling determines the ratio of non-game fish to game fish has “reached the tipping point.”

“I think if we can control the environment better, the (game) fish will grow better,” McDonald said. “It has stunted the growth of the trout with those garbage fish in there, so our plan is to drain it.”

While no timetable is set in stone yet, McDonald said the first draining of Hollecker will likely come this February, which would allow enough time before doing it for winter ice fishing on the lake and enough time after the draining to have it ready for FWP to stock it with a fresh batch of trout in late April or early May.

Asked if WU intends to try and clean out the lake bed when it is drained as well, McDonald said that’s not in the cards for now, noting the special equipment and therefore large expense that would require.

“It would be nice if we could (clean up the lake bed), but we don’t have the resources to do so,” McDonald said. “That would be ideal, but that’s not the plan this time.”

That being said, McDonald noted it has been a long time since Hollecker was last drained, so he is curious to see just what the lake bed looks like after it’s drained.

“It’ll be interesting to see what it looks like all these years later,” he said.

Rugg said that after the lake is drained and all the remaining non-desirable fish removed, the trout FWP stocks there should do better than they ever have before and begin to provide a really quality family fishery, noting that stocked trout do very well in other water bodies in Eastern Montana where they’re not facing intense competition from other species.

“The idea would be to get everything out of there so the trout will have no competition and then they should do well and grow pretty quickly in there,” Rugg said. “There’s definitely (ponds and lakes) around the region where there’s just trout in there and they do really good.”

As for the here and now, as McDonald noted, ice fishing is still an option on Hollecker this winter, given that it ever gets cold enough to actually form thick enough ice. Rugg noted that even after last spring’s winterkill, “there’s still a lot of fish left in there,” including decent numbers of yellow perch up to 8 inches long and rainbow trout from last spring’s stocking up to 9 inches long.

“There’s definitely some reason for folks to go fishing out there this winter if we ever get any ice,” Rugg said.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.


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