It’s been more than three decades since a state record black crappie was hoisted out of Tongue River Reservoir, one of the longest-standing records in Montana.
It was 1973 when Al Elser recorded a 16.7-inch, 3.13-pound crappie — a huge size for a fish that more commonly measures 4 to 8 inches.
With large old crappie showing up in Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ fishery biologists’ netting surveys last fall, anglers may be wondering if the black crappie record might fall this year.
Mike Backes, Region 7 fisheries manager for FWP, isn’t willing to speculate on that proposition, but he will say this: “Their chances of catching a 12- to 14-inch crappie are about as high as I’ve seen it since I came here in ‘91.”
Old and big
Backes said FWP netting surveys are not only catching quite a few crappie — up from 14 to 15 per net in 2010 to 65 last year — they are also revealing a “large contingency” of 10-year-old panfish. Anglers should have also noticed the change, with catch rates on a steep incline since 2010, he said.
That’s good news because in 2010 many fishermen were complaining that the crappie fishery had zeroed out. The odd thing was that FWP was still finding plenty of fish in the reservoir, anglers just weren’t hooking them. The fact that there are lots of older fish in the reservoir also shows that crappie were present.
Backes can only speculate on why crappie catch rates nose-dived. Maybe it was because of cooler spring temperatures that yo-yoed the water temperature. Then in 2011 a lot of water flushed through the reservoir in that high water year. Long cold winters can also lower the survival rate of young crappie, so even if there is a good hatch, a high first-year’s mortality may take a toll.
Crappie spawn in the first few weeks of June, laying as many as 40,000 eggs in a nest that is then guarded by the male for two to three days until they hatch.
“After their first year, survival is pretty good,” Backes said.
Located along the Montana-Wyoming border about two hours south of Billings, Tongue River Reservoir State Park is one of the most popular destinations in Eastern Montana. Last year’s park survey counted more than 76,000 visits — the fifth highest in the state. That figure was up a whopping 36 percent from the previous year.
In the springtime, especially on Memorial Day weekend, the campgrounds’ more than 150 spaces are filled and boat and shore anglers are busy trying to catch tasty crappie. Even though the fish may yield only a sliver of meat not much bigger than a 50 cent piece, regulations that allow anglers to catch 15 a day and have 30 in possession makes all of the effort worthwhile. The fish can be particularly easy for young anglers to catch, who can use everything from bait below a bobber to small lures and jigs to entice the fish to strike.
Walleye and pike
Although crappie provide a fun and simple fishery at Tongue River Reservoir, the 12-mile-long lake also contains walleye, sauger and northern pike. In fact, the reservoir also still holds the state pike record — a 37.5-pounder caught in 1972 by Lance Moyer.
“Pike have always done their own thing,” Backes said.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, FWP put a lot of effort into stocking more pike, but it seemed to do little to boost the fishery. FWP’s surveys show the lake has a 20-year average of about .66 pike per net. In 2012 that was up to 2.2 per net, a considerable increase likely attributable to the high water in 2011.
Although FWP doesn’t stock pike, it does annually supplement the walleye population, adding about 1 million fry and 50,000 fingerlings every year.
“There must also be some level of natural recruitment,” Backes said. “Because we see that population go up or down despite the fact that we maintain that stocking.”
Walleye are also doing well in the eastern reaches of the Yellowstone River with two distinct populations. There’s a migrant population that ventures upriver each spring to spawn, traveling out of Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Their upstream progress is often stalled by the Intake Diversion Dam. But there’s also a stable resident population above Intake that has boosted angler success farther upstream.
According to fisheries biologist Caleb Bollman, trophy walleye 10 pounds and larger are found on the Yellowstone River between Miles City and Hysham.
The walleye are still outnumbered by their native cousins, sauger. According to Backes, FWP surveys typically find 11 to 14 sauger for every one walleye in the Yellowstone River. Sauger tend to be more abundant from the mouth of the Powder River downstream.
Backes said fishing pressure on the Yellowstone in Eastern Montana has spiked significantly in recent years as anglers have come to enjoy the variety of the waterway — a fishery that includes not only sauger and walleye, but also smallmouth bass and some large catfish.
“Catfish are doing wonderful, especially in that Hysham country, in numbers and size,” Backes said.
Bollman said channel catfish are the most abundant sport fish in the river with 6- to 8-pound catfish common and 10- to 15-pounders observed in the annual fish surveys.
As evidence of the popularity and productivity of the catfish fishery, the Yellowstone Challenge Catfish Tournament will hold its eighth annual tournament on May 10 out of Huntley. Last year the winning weight was 30.7 pounds of fish and the largest was a 12.33 pounder.
Smallmouth bass like the river above the mouth of the Tongue River in less turbid water, Bollman said. Last year’s fall survey found a “historically high abundance” of smallmouth in the Hysham area, “a result of ideal spawning and rearing conditions” in 2012.