While anglers pursuing chinook salmon in Fort Peck Reservoir have to put in their time, the potential payoff is catching one of the hardest-fighting, best-eating fish in the world.
“If you’re lucky enough to hook into one, it will probably be a fish to remember,” said Heath Headley, fisheries biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). “They’re very feisty and can give you a real run for your money.”
FWP started stocking chinook salmon into Fort Peck Reservoir in 1983. They were introduced to offer a unique angling opportunity and to utilize the coldwater habitat, as well as to feed on a growing population of cisco -- also known as lake herring -- that inhabit the reservoir. Currently, this is the only chinook population in Montana.
There were a few years when the Fort Peck salmon appeared to flourish, but prolonged drought and declining reservoir levels put a damper on the fishery and many of the fish species that Chinook salmon eat.
Improved snowpack in the Upper Missouri River Basin and a willingness by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill Fort Peck Reservoir has resulted in increasing water levels on the reservoir. More water and a corresponding increase in available habitat have helped salmon prosper along with the other fish species found in the reservoir.
Fort Peck anglers typically start targeting salmon by using downrigger gear the latter part of summer. That’s when the reservoir’s temperature layering, known as a thermocline, usually becomes established. Heavy lead cannonballs are needed to get down to the depths where the salmon are found, and anglers pull large flashers and plastic squids to entice them to bite.
The combination of relatively low salmon numbers, a very large reservoir and abundant forage make the prospect of finding and hooking a salmon difficult. On the upside, an abundance of cisco over the past few years has led to some hefty salmon, with average weights hovering in the mid-teens and the larger ones approaching 25 pounds.
Headley said salmon can still be caught into September, but the fish are then starting to migrate toward the face of the dam and the Fort Peck Marina area, where shoreline anglers can also find success.
Salmon spawning activity will typically commence with vigor in the first part of October, when water temperatures start dropping below 60 degrees. During this time, mature salmon will move further into the shallower, shoreline areas and attempt to spawn.
The movement of salmon into shallow water triggers biologists to begin the annual collection of mature salmon using electro-fishing gear and trap nets. This salmon fishery is totally reliant on the efforts of Fort Peck’s FWP reservoir crew and hatchery to propagate. Without these efforts, Headley said there would be no chinook salmon fishing due to the absence of spawning habitat. Salmon need rivers and streams with clean gravel beds to successfully spawn and complete their life cycle.
So far this year 150,000 fingerling salmon have been planted in the reservoir, and another 25,000 eight-inch-long fish are scheduled to be released this fall. Chinook salmon typically live four to five years before they spawn and die.
Headley added that the eggs collected from Fort Peck Reservoir are the only disease-free chinook salmon eggs in the Lower 48 states, with the exception of the other mainstem Missouri River reservoirs in North Dakota and South Dakota.
The goal this fall is to collect upwards of 600,000 eggs from the adult females. From there, they will hatch and grow over the winter months and be released the following year -- offering another generation of rod-bending, line-peeling excitement for ambitious anglers.