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Northern fishery

J.D. Bailey of Opheim speared this 42.5-inch, 21.5-pound northern pike at Nelson Reservoir in 2012.

The fishing is good and the mosquitoes aren't out yet, so it's the perfect time to visit Nelson Reservoir, located 19 miles northeast of Malta in Phillips County.

Nelson contains about 26 species of fish, said Cody Nagel, a fisheries biologist in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Havre office. The main game fish are walleye, northern pike, crappie, perch and smallmouth bass.

Before July is a prime time to catch fish, when anglers can still have a good time but will still have to use mosquito spray, said Jim Mayer, owner of Westside Sports Malta Marine.

"Fishing has been really good," said Mayer, a Malta native who has spent quite a bit of time over the past 30 years fishing at Nelson. "They were catching a lot of eater-size walleyes bottom bouncing in 12 to 15 feet of water, more on the west end. Just recently now they are starting to move over structure in deep water. The northern bite is all in the shallows in the bays and weeds. If a person is fishing for northern, that is where they are headed. There are a few people fly fishing for northern with streamers."

Since 2008, Nagel said the trend on Hi-Line waters has been "really good water elevations and pool elevations staying fairly consistent," which leads to "very good spawning conditions, habitat conditions and favorable winters." Simply put, Nagel said "good water conditions equate to good fishing opportunities." 

Ice fishermen usually experience a balanced catch, Nagel said, noting anglers may hook quite a few perch. Some set up spear shacks in search of pike and walleye, while others use tip-ups in an attempt to catch pike, walleye, crappie and perch. 

For those new to fishing Nelson at this time of year, Mayer said a good method is to troll slowly while pulling a bottom bouncer.

The water temperature is 64 degrees, Mayer said, and traditionally from June through mid-July is the best time to fish for walleye. Those anglers having the most success are bottom bouncing worms. Hot colors are chartreuse, pink or orange. For pike, the best tactics are to use live minnows or silver crankbaits.

As the water warms, fish will move deeper "holding to structure," Mayer said, adding leeches are a top bait in mid to late summer.

There are opportunities for bank fishing, as well. Mayer recommends fishing the north shore. 

At the present time, those pitching jigs tipped with a plastic tail or crankbaits into the weedy shorelines are hooking smallmouth bass.

However, most of the anglers who venture out to Nelson are after walleye. And there's another plus for anglers traveling to Nelson.

"It's a nice opportunity and nice option instead of Fort Peck," Mayer said. "On Fort Peck, if the wind comes up you are done. At Nelson, at the high point, you might see four-foot waves, but not boat swampers."

Mayer said occasionally anglers will pull out catfish. And although not a game fish, carp — which are spawning now — do provide sport at Nelson. Some even use a bow and arrow to shoot carp.

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Deputy Sports Editor

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.