Arctic Grayling Project At Elk Lake (P2)

What has rainbow colored fins and is known as a premier sport fish? Arctic Grayling! I have never made any claims to fame (of any sort) when it comes to fish and fishing. However, I have to admit, this fish borders on fascinating. Of course, I doubt my interest would ever have been sparked had the FWP not started the Grayling reintroduction project on Elk Lake.

However, I have learned a LOT about Grayling - enough to really appreciate this unique fish. Here are a few interesting tidbits:

  • "The Arctic Grayling has graceful lines, a large sail like dorsal fin, and can have dramatic coloration"
  • "Arctic Grayling can reach a length of 30 inches and a weight of 6 pounds. Most angler caught Grayling are 3 pounds or less."
  • "For most sportfishermen, the Arctic Grayling is a rare freshwater game fish symbolic of the clear, cold streams of the northern wilderness."
  • "The Arctic grayling has almost disappeared from the northern United States because of over fishing, competition from introduced species, and habitat loss."
  • According to Landbigfish.com the largest Grayling caught in Montana was 20 inches long and weighed 3#. Only Alaska and Canada have produced larger fish - and, I have heard rumors Elk Lake used to produce fish which rivaled the state record. I bet we can do it again. Soon!

Thank you to: JustSportFishing.com for most of this Grayling information.

Last time we left the poor adult fish suffering the indignity of being milked of eggs and sperm for the Grayling incubator buckets. Once these eggs are collected, they are 'eyed up' (a dark 'spot' shows on each egg) at another location then transferred to our Grayling hatchery shown in the photo.

Last year's setup left much to be desired. As a result, while one always *hopes* to see success, the FWP really didn't expect much. It was a trial run - an attempt to figure out what they didn't know about our hatching conditions. And, while they were successful - eggs hatched and baby fish survived to show up in their survey this year - the greatest benefit, perhaps, was the lessons they learned which helped them prepare a very nice hatchery for this year.

Not only did they learn about the elevated nitrate (and its effects on the fish eggs), they also dreamed up a spectacularly effective setup which provided good control and nearly ideal conditions for the Grayling eggs.

Thus they turned this unimpressive series of buckets (there were two sets of 10 buckets) and gutters and PVC pipe into a well-thought out, laboriously constructed and carefully designed hatchery.

Once the bucket system (each bucket is called an RSI) was in place and functioning correctly, and once the Grayling eggs had eyed-up, it was time to put the eggs in the buckets. Here you see a bunch of fish eggs resting on a screen. The dark yellow are the eggs (and if you look close you can see the dark spot in each egg). The lighter particles are dead eggs.

Those dead eggs represent the labor of love (and backbreaking work) which goes into hatching these baby fish. Every day for the couple of weeks or so until the eggs hatch, a biologist and/or technician hand picks out the dead eggs to prevent bacteria from developing which could harm the live eggs. I can almost imagine their relief when their day didn't begin with 20 buckets of fish eggs to pick through!

And, of course, no one really knew how successful this undertaking would be. Would most of the eggs hatch? Some? A few? None? So - when the buckets began to look like this - bulging with baby fish - everyone felt like celebrating!

As one biologist put it - the baby Grayling look like grass with eyes. Yet, they are amazingly in tune with what is supposed to happen next. One day all the fish in the buckets decided it was time to migrate - and like a flock of birds, they mass exited the buckets, swam down the gutters and out the down spots, heading for the lake. There, according to FWP, they will grow quickly reaching 8 to 10 inches by this time next year.

Thus we are all hoping to see Grayling join these spawning Cutthroats within the next two or three years. Of course, the Blue Herons who have found the 'fish buffet' may have to be conviced to fish elsewhere as I doubt any of us want to watch all our hard work and hopes and dreams merely end up as a bird's lunch!

But, we'll worry about that next year. For now we are very happy to say the Grayling project looks to be moving ahead with much greater success than anyone dared to hope!

Lady of the Lake


Arctic Grayling Project At Elk Lake (P1)

To some people a fish is a fish is a fish. However, to the dedicated folks who work for Montana's Fish Wildlife and Parks, everything which wear scales and fins is unique in its own right. Thus, as I have reported in earlier posts, they have undertaken a major project to re-introduce a fish native to our lake whose presence had been lost in Elk Lake's waters.

As I showed in a post this past February, the Grayling reintroduction project has been quite complicated. Not only did this mean more than merely putting fish back into the lake, it has required reconstructing an entire stream as well as a 1/4 mile pipeline to guarantee adequate stream flow, even in drier springs.

A beautiful stream (and they did an amazing job) and piped water are not sufficient in and of themselves. To create the Grayling 'nursery' to raise these precious young, the FWP had to develop the water pressure needed to feed the buckets. Thus this spring they built a 'pond'.

But in our country, merely digging a hole and setting a headgate does not guarantee water storage. In fact, our ground is so shaley, the FWP had to haul in a truckload of Bentonite to seal the pond's bottom.

The trickiest part in the whole process was creating a pond (and sealing its leaky bottom and sides) without disturbing the spring which fed it. In the final analysis, it appears the spring is producing better than ever!

The end result is quite impressive. And, we have been assured the FWP will be back to refoliate the pond's banks. However, according to one of the biologists, this stream actually grows plants too well - so maybe it won't wait that long! In other words, the spring's abundant nitrate grows lush streamside foliage. But, that much nitrate is not healthy for baby fish. So, over the winter, the team put their heads together and created a 'waterfall' to reduce the nitrate levels!

Once the habitat had been constructed, it was time to secure some fish eggs. Since the Artic Grayling which inhabited Elk Lake have relatives thriving in Red Rock Creek, they were the logical brood stock for reistablishing Elk Lake's Grayling propulation.

While some might think this process requires a hatchery and a few captive fish, the process is in one way much more simple and in another much more complicated. To assure the greatest chance for successful reintroduction, the baby Grayling need to 'hatch' where they will later spawn. So, the first step was so catch some Grayling before they spawned.

I suspect that never - even in their wildest dreams (or nightmares) - did these fish expect their spawning expedition would end this way! While it doesn't look very romantic, 'milking' the Grayling for their eggs and sperm is the quickest way to obtaining the fertilized eggs so necessary for our project.

And while the Grayling have had to endure the indignities required to obtain their eggs, Elk Lake's Westslope Cutthroats have been going about it the 'natural' way! It is so nice to see our stream already proving itself to be desireable habitat.

Next time we'll continue to Grayling Saga and show what happened to all those eggs 'stolen' from the Red Rock fish. I must admit. I never expected moving to the middle of nowhere would provide such an education. Who else has science experiments going on in their backyard? Who else can watch the reintroduction of a lost era - and enjoy the process from start to finish? We are certainly a blessed family!

Lady of the Lake


An Evening In Montana's Centennial Valley

After eight years at Elk Lake, I have done and seen and experienced most of what the area has to offer at least once. Nonetheless, even the same walk or the same drive or the same animal or the same bird is never really the same. Every experience is unique. Thus, while I have had the privilege of spending much time in Montana's Centennial Valley, my trip out the other evening offered new perspectives - new experiences - and new delights!

Many people think the best place to see wildlife is Yellowstone National Park. To a point this is correct. However, a recent evening outting into the Centennial with our new employees left a lasting impression. Since they have spent a lot of time in YNP, their comment (below) carried even more weight.

About half way through our trip, after spotting numerous and various big game - some very impressive and only TWO other vehicles, they said, "This is so much better than Yellowstone Park!" Of course, the abundant scenic beauty probably helped influence their opinion.

The Centennial Valley's east west orientation flanked by the Continental Divide's abrupt face on the south creates a spectacular setting for sunset photos. As the rosy glow brushes the Centennial's snowy peaks, everything else seems to pause and reflect.

Thus, the elk and deer and moose and pronghorn and sandhills and everything else we observed that evening were enjoyed in a most spectacular setting.

While we saw dozens of elk, this lone cow and young bull were kind enough to come close to the road and pose for their pictures. Since the animals in the Centennial Valley are wild - this was definitely an added bonus.

However, the photo opp of the evening was this big boy who stood, watching us for the longest time.

I almost had to laugh when I looked closely at this photo. Mr. Big Bull was looking over at some elk near the treeline. If you look closely, it almost looks like he's talking to them (I know, it's his nose opening, but with that face, well, you can easily imagine it to be a mouth). If he were, I suspect he would be saying something about the tourists who have obviously never seen such a good looking guy before!

A few yards down the road we spotted two more big boys - one comparable to Mr. Big Bull whom we had just left mosing his way toward the road.

All too soon, however, daylight began to fade and it was time to turn back. Heading back to the east I happened to look over toward Elk Lake. The Madison's basking in the sunset's rosy embrace were too beautiful not to try and capture for memory's sake!

Yet the wildlife sightings were not finished. More elk. More moose. More deer (whitetail and mule deer). Even some Sandhill Cranes who were more than happy to tell us off for disturbing their quiet evening stroll!

We had seen quite a few bull Moose, but I had begun to wonder where all the ladies were hanging out. Not much further down the road I found one - playing peek a boo through the aspens!

One last unexpected bonus awaited us before the light faded away. This snowshoe hare 'hopes' it is hidden - but, of course, we were glad it was not. I have seen these rabbits many times - usually in my headlights as I am heading down Elk Lake Road after dark. However, this one was up and about early enough to be seen and really enjoyed.

As we said goodbye to another spectacular day, I couldn't help but thank the good Lord for the privilege of living in such a spectacular location. A place that never grows old - a place which continues to charm me even when I've "been there - done that" before. I hope, wherever this finds you, you are experiencing similar beauty and enjoyment in the grandeurs of creation!

Lady of the Lake


Snapshots Of Spring In Montana's Centennial Valley (P2)

In spite of rumors of winter's untimely return, spring is STILL in the air. Here at Elk Lake we are enjoying the returning birds and wildlife, the wildflowers and green grass, the sparking lake waters and colorful fish.

Living in snow country, the circle of life is as obvious as the ticking of a clock. Spring's rebirth, after winter's barren and brown season, paints our world with bold strokes of color. Every season brings something special, but this is the time of year to rejoice in life!

Thus I am thrilled to report we have Trumpeter Swans nesting on Elk Lake for the first time in 9 years. I suspect it has more to do with weather conditions conducive to an early start than anything else. Whatever the reason, along with Mom and Dad, we eagerly await the Cygnets soon to arrive.

I often wonder how massive bull elk and moose move through heavy timber without tangling their antlers in the trees' boughs. Along the same line, how on earth does a bird with a bill this long keep its balance? In spite of their homely appearance, we are delighted to see the Long Billed Curlews once again hanging out near Elk Lake.

Of course the water fowl are more than obviously happy with the ice's early disappearance. Last year the Centennial wasn't nearly as inviting. Let's hope this means babies in abundance this year!

In spite of the unpredictable weather, our little feathered friends continue to fill our ears with their lovely songs. We've seen many smaller birds - even a hummingbird - but the Juncos are the most hardy (and thus seen the most often). This one appears to be enjoying the warm morning sun.

This young eagle was probably one of the best photo opps I've had this year. While clearly a bit nervous about our close proximity, he chose to sit and pose rather than fly away. I took advantage of his compliance and snapped a few dozen pictures!

But, it is still spring in Montana's Centennial Valley. So, our lives aren't all sunshine and bright blue skies! Some mornings are downright COLD (I admit, I had to leave the valley to find a "STOP" or, shall we say "OP" sign). This sign certainly shows what life would be like were it not for the sun's warming rays.

In fact, for Memorial Day, we received a very good reminder! A reminder winter is not quite finished flexing its muscles at Elk Lake. Thus our 'ride' looked like it had woken up in the wrong season!

The view out our windows looked more like the Christmas holiday than the long weekend which celebrates the beginning of summer!

But, the sun returned and the fish started biting - and everyone was happy. Life goes on - and just like the hands of time will race their way around the clock's face once again today, Spring will roll into summer with all its lovely bird song, warm days, and cool mountain nights. Ahhh - life at Elk Lake! Just another day in paradise!

Lady of the Lake