Fort Peck salmon

FWP intern Wyatt Pickens was able to catch a fat salmon on Fort Peck Reservoir in July.

After a slow 2017 season, chinook salmon are biting at Fort Peck Reservoir meaning that anglers with downrigger-fitted boats fitted have been flocking to the dam area in search of fish.

Heath Headley, Fort Peck fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said that the salmon fishing forecast for this summer looks promising based on the 345,386 salmon released in 2017.

Early indications are that a good portion of the salmon caught in 2018 are smaller, younger fish. Specifically, 2-year-old males, also known as “jacks,” that should average about 5 pounds. Males typically mature earlier than females, and the high abundance of food has also been shown to lead to faster growth and maturity. Male salmon typically mature at 2 to 3 years while female salmon mature at 3 to 4 years of age in Fort Peck Reservoir.

Anglers may recall a similar pattern back in 2015 when numerous 2-year-old males were caught when similar environmental and biological conditions were very favorable for growth and survival. That year class was present in the system for an additional two years providing angling opportunities and eggs for future stocking efforts. It’s still too early to tell, but based on observations thus far, things look encouraging for the upcoming years.

In 2018, FWP released 377,534 chinook salmon into Fort Peck Reservoir. This is the third largest stocking of chinook salmon since the program began back in 1983 and was largely due to a successful egg collection and above-average hatching success. Female salmon collected in the fall of 2017 were larger than average and carried more eggs. Additionally, egg size was larger than average, which has been shown to lead to better hatching success.

Salmon were first introduced into Fort Peck in 1983. Due to the abundance of their preferred forage fish, cisco, the chinook have shown excellent growth, with males maturing in two to four years and females in three to four years. This is the only chinook fishery in Montana, so anglers travel from near and far in hopes of hooking the tasty freshwater titans.

Strong numbers of salmon released, abundant cisco, and a productive reservoir environment should benefit hatchery salmon survival. Cisco can also act as a buffer to predation from walleye and northern pike. Higher reservoir elevations also provide an increased amount of coldwater habitat, key to salmon survival.

Biologists generally don’t get much insight into the survival of small salmon until they reach larger sizes and are caught in sampling gear. However, FWP's staff observed small 8- to 10-inch salmon during the 2017 summer/fall during sampling surveys. In addition, anglers reported catching a few, as well. This is a promising sign that stocking efforts and good survival are leading to a potentially strong year class.