Two days of fish sampling by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in late September demonstrated a healthy start to the fish population in the recently renovated Baker Lake.
Six fish species (black & white crappie, fathead minnow, yellow perch, rainbow trout and walleye) were sampled, which included young-of-the-year (YOY) yellow perch and crappie. According to FWP Region 7 Fisheries Manager Mike Backes, YOY fish indicate that adult fish stocked or released early in 2019 successfully spawned in Baker Lake. Furthermore, growth rates of adult fish, stocked or transferred from other waters, grew substantially in 2019.
Black crappie were the most abundant fish sampled. From a total of 3,368 netted, most were YOY-sized fish, with only 35 adults. Adult crappie mean length was 11.2 inches, and the largest was 12.4 inches. Fathead minnows were the second most abundant fish, accounting for 1,043 fish. Yellow perch were the third most abundant fish, composed of 27 adults and 599 YOY. Adults averaged 9.2 inches, and the largest was 11 inches. Walleye catch included eight adults and 27 YOY stocked fish. Adult walleye averaged 22.5 inches, and the largest was 25 inches long and weighed 7.2 pounds. Sixteen rainbow trout were also netted, averaging 10.5 inches long, with the largest 11.6 inches.
Other than fathead minnows, which entered the lake with water from Upper Baker Lake, five other fish species were stocked by state hatcheries or by wild fish transfers conducted by Region 7 FWP staff. Hatchery stocking of rainbow trout occurred on May 16 and June 13, which included 2,824 trout that averaged 6.6 inches long, and 2,974 trout averaging 3.4 inches. The hatchery also stocked 10,000 walleye fingerlings June 25 that averaged 1.7 inches long.
Following disease and pathogen testing at source waters and inspection for aquatic invasive species, 12 days of wild fish transfers from three water sources were conducted in 2019 to release fish into Baker Lake. Most fish transferred were adult sized and capable of spawning. Netting at South Sandstone Reservoir April 15-18 and May 3 yielded 1,623 yellow perch and 229 black crappie. Nineteen adult walleye were captured from the Yellowstone River near Intake Dam May 6. Fifty-seven crappie were transferred from Tongue River Reservoir May 21. Netting at South Sandstone May 28-30 yielded 818 yellow perch and 125 black crappie. A second trip to Tongue River Reservoir June 5 resulted in transferring 57 white crappie and 142 black crappie. Lastly, a third effort at South Sandstone September 17 yielded 163 yellow perch and 23 black crappie.
Provided fish survive the first winter at Baker Lake, additional fish stocking or transfers will be limited to annual stocking of walleye fry from the state hatchery or opportunistic adult walleye from the Yellowstone River. The other fish species will naturally spawn and sustain their populations, Backes said.
Despite the success of fish introductions thus far, angler success this winter and next spring could be slow due to relative low densities of larger fish. Rainbow trout will likely dominate angler catch this winter and next summer. Anglers will catch an occasional adult of the other species, but do not expect to get a bag limit just yet. Some of the adult walleye are also tagged with a yellow floy tag placed under the dorsal fin. Anglers are encouraged to call the FWP regional office (234-0900) to report the tag return and if the fish was kept or released. This information assists FWP with understanding catch rates, growth rates and harvest success.
The extensive renovation of Baker Lake by Fallon County included draining the reservoir, excavating deeper areas, removing debris from the 2018 tornado, adding structural fish habitat, and adding fishing docks, a pier, swimming beaches and more. All these efforts were intended to increase the recreational enjoyment of the lake by the community and other users. Everyone involved with the project is optimistic that the increased depth of the lake will reduce the severity and frequency of fish winterkills that has historically plagued the quality of the fishery.