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The Hi-Line's Fresno Reservoir Offers Year-Round Opportunities

Fishing - Region 6

Sat Apr 28 12:48:00 MDT 2012

Located approximately 14 miles west of Havre, Fresno Reservoir has been providing flood control, irrigation, municipal water, and recreational opportunities to Montanans for 72 years.
At full pool the reservoir encompasses more than 5,700 surface acres and provides excellent fishing opportunities for walleye, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappie and lake whitefish.
Fresno Dam is owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which also administers public recreation and other facilities on the federal lands surrounding the reservoir. The Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited, a private nonprofit group, owns and operates a campground on the east side of the reservoir and maintains several boat slips as well as the courtesy docks located at Kremlin Bay and the main boat ramps.
As required by the federal 1902 Reclamation Act, the majority of operations and maintenance of the system is paid for by the irrigators who use the water. The system includes the St. Mary’s Canal near the U.S. and Canadian border, which provides a supplemental water supply to the Milk River and, further downstream, Fresno Reservoir.
Because the primary legal purpose of the reservoir is to provide water to downstream irrigators, annual water-level fluctuations of 20 feet are common. The timing and magnitude of these fluctuations is critical to fish production, survival, and their physical condition, said Havre-based Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Biologist Cody Nagel.
“Similar to most reservoir systems in the West, high precipitation or severe drought conditions can determine the boom-and-bust years for anglers,” Nagel said. “The severe drought conditions experienced across the Hi-Line in 2001-02 severely impacted the fish community and had anglers wondering how long it would take the fishery to recover.”
Though it did take some time to develop, several consecutive years (2007-2011) of good spring runoff and precipitation throughout the summer months has water levels up, Nagel said, and the abundance of most species found in Fresno Reservoir are at or near all-time highs. 
High and stable reservoir levels during the month of April has allowed spring-spawning species like walleye, northern pike, and yellow perch to utilize the submerged rock/gravel and vegetation habitats to consecutively produce several good year classes, Nagel said.
“These good precipitation years have enabled the reservoir to stay high and stable during June, which doesn’t happen often,” Nagel said. “That has resulted in some of the best black crappie year classes ever recorded. The high water does come with a cost, however, as adult fish become more susceptible to flushing over the spillway during extremely high reservoir levels.”
Walleye are the primary species anglers target in Fresno Reservoir, and FWP has been managing the popular water body with an emphasis on walleye since the 1960s. Historically, walleye reproductive success and abundance has been good, and very little walleye stocking occurred, Nagel explained.
However, since 2003 FWP has been stocking Fresno with up to 100,000 walleye fingerlings annually as statewide production increased with the creation of the Fort Peck Hatchery.
Current walleye abundance is at an all-time high, with FWP fall netting surveys averaging 22 walleyes per net since 2007. This is also the highest walleye relative abundance currently found in the state of Montana. 
“Above-average reservoir levels throughout the year, good natural reproduction of walleye and forage fish, and supplemental walleye stocking have all contributed to the current walleye densities,” Nagel said.
Fresno Reservoir’s walleye population is comprised of mostly one-year to five-year-old fish that range in length from 10 to 21 inches. Fishing has been very good the past few years, and this trend should continue in 2012.
“The best walleye bite tends to take place during May and June,” Nagel said. “Depending on the amount of forage available in the reservoir, the fishing usually slows down in July and August. There is also a good fall bite, and anglers have no problems finding northern pike and a few walleye during the winter, as well.”
Anglers are reminded that the use of live bait fish is not allowed in Fresno Reservoir, which means anglers must find other creative and innovative ways to lure in their catch.