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As good as any Disney movie on African lions is the great circle of life playing out in Fort Peck Reservoir thanks to more water.

As the Eastern Montana lake’s elevation has steadily risen, more shoreline vegetation has been flooded. The flooded vegetation provides spawning areas for fish like yellow perch, spotted shiners and crappie. When those fishes’ eggs hatch, the underwater shrubbery creates an excellent hideout for the small fry to avoid predators. As the vegetation degrades over time, it boosts the lake’s nutrient level, which feeds plankton. Fish in their larval stage eat the plankton. As the baitfish numbers increase, predatory fish like walleye, pike and chinook salmon fatten up on the buffet of available forage fish.

As evidence of the increased growth in baitfish, anglers are catching 8- to 10-inch perch, which hasn’t happened in a long time. It’s the kind of good news that drought-stricken anglers and fisheries managers love to talk about.

“We saw improved numbers in our shoreline survey with yellow perch, spotted shiners and crappie as a result of the water we’ve gained in the last few years,” said Heath Headley, Fort Peck fisheries biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Last year we had a 13-foot rise. That provided a lot of good spawning and rearing habitat. It also gives those small to medium predator fish more food, which gives them more growth.”

The previous year, the lake’s elevation climbed 12 feet. That’s a 25-foot climb in just two years, but still 15 feet below full pool. The reservoir bottomed out in 2007 at an elevation of 2,200 feet above sea level after falling steadily for a decade. The current elevation is 2,235.

Chances are good that the reservoir level will continue climbing this spring as mountain runoff is predicted at 112 percent of normal for the Missouri River. The forecast runoff is 27.8 million acre feet of water. That compares to last year’s 38.8 million acre feet of runoff, when the drainage saw runoff at 156 percent of normal.

This year’s figures should still climb as another 30 percent of the Missouri’s snowpack typically falls between now and mid-April. In its forecast, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Fort Peck Dam, estimates the Missouri drainage’s runoff could peak at 140 percent of normal.

Although the increase in water is a blessing for fish, all the flooded vegetation can provide problems for anglers who are losing lures to submerged hazards. But that’s a minor point as fish numbers and their size have increased.

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“We’ve seen an increase in 15- to 20-inch walleyes in comparison to previous years when the water was low,” Headley said.

Stocking rates for walleye will be increased to take advantage of the expanding reservoir. Headley predicted 3 to 4 million fingerlings would be stocked from the Fort Peck and Miles City fish hatcheries.

The chinook salmon egg take last fall collected about 610,000 eggs, Headley said, the best on record.

“The weights of our fish were quite a bit higher, one was 26 pounds,” he said. “Other fish were in the 20s. The average was the upper teens, whereas it’s typically around 15. They were fat and sassy.”

Headley has seen a gradual increase in the number of pike, with more smaller fish and a greater range of sizes — from 14 inches on up to 36 inches or more.

More water, more food and more fish have added up to good news for Fort Peck anglers.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Headley said. “The stage is set for some good fishing.”

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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