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Henckel Column: Who's nuts? Not me and my dog
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Mark Henckel MONTANA OUTDOORS

Picture this: the entire population of Miles City - plus about 2,500 of their closest friends - jammed into one state park.

Or, think of it as almost two times as many people as Laurel, Lewistown or Livingston. Or, almost four times the number in Glasgow. Or, almost five times as many as live in Wolf Point.

That was the picture at Tongue River Reservoir on Memorial Day Weekend 2002. Don't expect this weekend to be all that much different.

"Last year, we had close to 11,000 people there at the state park over the Memorial Day weekend," said Cathy Stewart, parks operations supervisor with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Miles City. "We're expecting it to be busy again this weekend. We expect it to be crowded."

Year in and year out, Tongue River Reservoir is the place to be in Eastern Montana over the Memorial Day weekend if you want to catch fish - usually lots and lots of fish. It's the time when the crappies move into the shallows to spawn.

With both black crappies and white crappies found in the lake, Tongue River is the best crappie fishery in the state - hands down. The limit on the reservoir is 30 per day per angler and 60 in possession, twice the statewide limit. People here do catch those limits at this time of year. Sometimes, they catch them in a hurry.

The lure of choice is usually a little jig head - 1/16 to 1/8 ounce - with a twister tail in white, yellow, blue, purple or black. Some people add a bit of nightcrawler or a small minnow. Some don't.

Between the boat and bank fishermen, thousands of crappies are generally caught over the holiday weekend.

Tongue River Reservoir also attracts a good number of users of personal watercraft (more commonly called by the brand name Jet-Ski) - especially this year since Bighorn Lake has been closed to personal watercraft use by the National Park Service. Expect a fair share of pleasure boaters and water skiers as well.

The use is so heavy that FWP's parks division gears up with extra staff and special procedures.

"We had road blocks set up on the roads last year and we'll be doing it again this year," Stewart said. "It's mainly to help people. We do collect fees there and some people think we're only there for their fees. But for the most part, it's to provide information.

"We can talk to people who come in and answer their questions. We can talk to them about the rules of the park. We can tell people what areas are full and which areas still have space left," she said.

That information may be even more valuable this year, because early runoff has filled Tongue River Reservoir.

"Because the reservoir is full already, there's not nearly the room on shore that we had last year," Stewart said. "Yes, we should have room. But people aren't going to be able to have a whole area to themselves."

if you go The cost to camp at Tongue River Reservoir State Park is $15 a night, $12 with a State Parks Passport. Only two camper units are allowed per camping spot. The day-use fee is $5, free to passport holders.

Stewart said there are new fee schedules in place for Tongue River and other state parks this year.

"In the past, the day-use fee and camping fee were combined at $12 per day. This year, they are completely separate," she said. "If you go in to camp, it's one fee - $15 per night. If you have a State Parks Passport, it's $12. If you are going in for the day, it's $5. If you have a passport, it's free.

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"If a motor home or other camper unit comes in and two other people drive in with their cars, the motor home pays the camping fees and the cars pay day-use fees," Stewart added.

She said there are only two camper units allowed per spot. "Sometimes, we get big groups that want to shove six motor homes into a spot and that's not allowed," she said.

There are also quiet hours that will be enforced - the same quiet hours that are in place at all state parks - from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Boaters and personal watercraft users are also reminded that there are no-wake zones on Tongue River Reservoir, where lake users go slowly enough that they don't kick up big waves.

Finally, with big catches of fish expected, remember that with all nontrout and nonsalmon species, a minimum of 1-inch-by-1-inch-square shoulder patch of skin with scales must remain attached to each fillet for identification. With all trout and salmon species in Montana, the full skin must be left on the fillets.

No matter where people are heading this weekend, expect plenty of others to be out enjoying our streams, rivers, lakes and parks.

As Stewart put it, "Remember to show courtesy to other boaters and campers. It's going to be crowded. So be patient and show kindness to others."

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted by phone at: (406) 657-1395, or by e-mail at: henckel@billingsgazette.com

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